Bible Month 4:”Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt”

hd-colossians_0This month at the churches I serve we are observing Bible Month. This is an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to foster Biblical literacy by encouraging congregations to focus on a particular book of the Bible during June.  This year we are looking at the New Testament book of Colossians, dividing the whole book up over four Sundays. I have already written posts about the other parts of the book. This Sunday, I am at Methodist Conference in Birmingham and so other preachers have covered the final part of the book but I thought I would just make a few comments about Colossians 3:18-4:18 today.

Over the last three weeks, our congregations in Barnes and Putney have worked through the first three chapters of the book of Colossians. We have learned how the author – whom many people identify as the apostle Paul – wrote to the small church in ancient Asia MinorColossae (now in south-west Turkey). He encouraged them in their faith, warned them about false teachers and encouraged them to adopt a new way of living as Christians, always acting with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (3:12). Running through all these verses is the central message that Jesus Christ “is all and in all” (3:11). In Jesus, we encounter God; in Jesus, we see the perfect example of how to lead our lives; in Jesus, we may have hope for the future.

This final section of Colossians is, in some respects, the hardest to tackle – and the two local preachers who have led worship on these verses in the churches I serve have certainly let me know that! The passage is, however, full of fascinating insights into Paul’s life and ministry, and some useful challenges to contemporary Christians.

It may be easiest to start with the end of the letter and work backwards. In the final section (4:7-18), Paul concludes his letter in the same way he does many others, sending greetings not only from himself but from those he was with. There is so much of interest here, but we may wish to note the following:

  • we meet a number of familiar figures in this passage that we encounter elsewhere in the New Testament, for example Tychius in Ephesians 6:21-22 and Onesimus (the runaway slave) in Philemon.
  • we again hear news of Epaphras, the founder of the church in Colossae (see also 1:7) – even though he is far away, he is still praying hard for his brothers and sisters at home.
  • verse 4:15 is an important reminder that at this time all Christians met in individual’s houses, and women often seemed to act as their leaders.
  • the reference to another letter to the church in nearby Laodicea has intrigued Christians and historians for years, as no such epistle has survived. We know that Paul wrote other letters (notably to the Corinthians) that have also not survived.
  • the final verse seems to indicate that Paul used a secretary, or amunuensis, to write the letter but added his personal greeting here (see also Gal. 6:11). Some scholars have wondered whether this might help explain some of the stylistic differences with Paul’s other letters.
  • the last verse and 4:3 seem to tell us that Paul was in prison at the time he wrote this letter. Paul was imprisoned on several occasions but many commentators suggest that this was during his imprisonment in Rome, around 60/61 AD.
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Remains of temple in Laodicea

In all this, we see how Paul is not acting alone but is part of a global network of churches and Christians, constantly communicating and crucially praying for one another. As a Methodist, I see in this something of our ‘Connexion’. This is the word British Methodists use to talk about their church: not as an institution but a living ‘connection’ of congregations. ‘Connexion’ is just an old spelling of ‘connection’, dating back to how John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, described the collection of congregations he established. For Methodists, this inter-linking is at the heart of our identity: we are not solitary Christians, struggling alone, but part of one body, whose head is Jesus Christ. This is very much expressed by the annual meeting of representatives here at Conference, where we not only transact business but, just as Paul did, share news, greetings and prayers with old friends and new.

62-May1-2018-Laodocia-10168-1Before this final greeting section, we have Paul’s final words for the Colossians. Again, this is fairly typical of the epistles in our New Testament, and perhaps even of the letters, e-mails or phone calls that we write or make. Just before the end, we remind the person of a few key messages, or reflect on the main subject of our conversation: “Don’t forget to…”; “We’ll be thinking of you next Tuesday…”; “Remember, be firm when…”. Here, Paul does something similar and returns to a theme he picked up in the first verses of his letter: prayer. “Devote yourselves to prayer” (4:2), he urges them. He has already told them that he prays for them (1:3, 1:9), now he urges the Colossian Christians to pray for him too. This too was, and is, the true network that supports Christ’s church, with Christians across the world holding each other up in prayer – like an invisible safety net. Paul reminds those first Christians, and through them us, that following Jesus is hard (that is why he is in prison) but that they do not face these challenges alone. In the same way, all members of Conference here in modern-day Birmingham have this morning made a solemn commitment to hold up in prayer those who are to be ordained this day.

Finally, I return to the hardest section of this passage (3:18-4:1). This is a very controversial and challenging passage. Many excellent scholars have written about it and I would urge people to engage with the numerous excellent commentaries that have been written on this book (a selection is given below). The passage needs to be read in the context of its own times, when for example fathers had the right of life and death over their own children, and in the context of the New Testament, where such lists of household rules are not uncommon (e.g. Eph. 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

The one point I wish to make here, is that these verses present us with the acute challenge of being ‘people of one book’ (as John Wesley described himself) . How are we in 21st Century Britain meant to respond to these texts, which in many ways seem so out of touch with our understanding of human relationships and the world in which we now live? So much has been written about this subject but it remains a vital one for us, and these verses from Colossians make the challenge very clear.

There are some parts of this passage that we may agree, or half agree, with. Children should obey parents, for example when they are seeking to protect them from harm or to educate them properly. Husbands and wives should love one another. But there are undeniably also verses with which we disagree strongly, notably the commandment for slaves to obey their masters (3:22), even if these masters are also commanded to be fair to them (4:1). This is one of a number of Biblical texts where slavery is seemingly simply accepted as part of life’s natural order; something we now find abhorrent. (Although we should note that there are more slaves now, thanks in large part to human trafficking, than ever before.)

These verses present all Christians acutely with the challenge of how we are to interpret our own scriptures. They demonstrate very clearly how we can never simply abdicate all responsibility for interpreting and applying scripture by saying, ‘For the Bible tells me so’. We cannot just apply the authority of scripture to a belief, for example, that wives should always be submissive, based on 3:18, if we refuse to accept arguments for slavery 80aee46e82940f8921e795bb125bd195based on 3:22. We must have a consistent approach to all of scripture, which honestly recognises the need to bring in other tools that inform our reading. (Something that nearly everyone does, if they are self-aware.) For Methodists these have always been reason, tradition and experience, which with scripture form the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is a means of reading the Bible that I believe allows us to read such passages with honesty and integrity.

Tomorrow, at the Methodist Conference, this challenge of how we read our Bibles, will once again come to the fore. We shall not be discussing Colossians but the report from the Marriage and Relationships task force: God in love unites us. The report addresses the whole field of human relationships but it is the section that deals with same-sex marriage that has perhaps inevitably attracted the most attention. It is undeniably the most controversial item on the Conference’s agenda and we will, once again, see impassioned debates, with the issue of scriptural interpretation being crucial. Inevitably, some people have refused to even countenance the issue of same-sex relationships, and in some cases of even homosexual identity, because of certain passages in the Bible.

The texts are different but the same fundamental question remains as with the Colossians text. If those passages are unquestionably authoritative scripture, then are all the others as well?  The report lays out a response to these arguments that is far better than I ever could manage (read section 4 of the report, in particular). It offers a well thought out and faithful response to the challenge of reading the scriptures in our own time and context. I pray that Paul’s words in Colossians may be heeded by all present, and the debate that will follow: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (4:6).

This is a very brief response to a passage that raises huge issues. I hope, though, that you have enjoyed dwelling in the letter of Colossians as much as I have this month. The response from my congregations has certainly been positive to this splendid initiative, and I do hope we shall repeat it again next year. It is vitally important that we all recognise the tremendous gift and responsibility texts like Colossians represent: the gift of a life-giving word; the responsibility of interpreting it properly, “to serve the present age”.

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Select bibliography

  • Barth, Markus, and Blanke, Helmut, Colossians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994
  • Campbell, Constantine R. Colossians and Philemon: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013
  • Dunn, James D G, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014
  • Levine, Amy-Jill, and Brettler, Marc Zvi, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edn.), Oxford: OUP, 2017
  • Moo, Douglas J, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Nottingham: Apollos, 2008
  • O’Brien, P T, ‘Letter to the Colossians’ in Gerald F Hawthorne and Ralph P Martin, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Leicester: IVP, 1994, 147-53
  • Pao, David W, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Colossians and Philemon, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012
  • Smith, Ian K, Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae, London: T&T Clark, 2006
  • Sumney, Jerry L., Colossians: A Commentary, London: WJKP, 2008
  • Witherington III, Ben, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007

Bible Month 3: “seek the things that are above”

hd-colossians_0This is the talk I gave on Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. I shall also be sharing it with my congregations at Barnes and Roehampton Methodist Churches next week. This is part of the Bible Month initiative, which this year focuses on the book of Colossians. We have been working through the entire book during the course of this month. The specific text today was Colossians 2:16-3:17.

Introduction

On this third Sunday in June, we are continuing to mark Bible Month in our churches, studying the New Testament book of Colossians, together with Christians across the country. In the first week, I gave an overall introduction to the whole book, its author, audience and major themes. Last week, here at Putney, Tina spoke about some of the challenges that the Colossians were facing, living in a multi-faith environment, and Paul’s suffering on their behalf as an apostle.

bible-month-logo-blueThis week we are going to look at the central section of the book. Here Paul continues to warn the first Christians in ancient Colossae about the dangers of being led astray by “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8), giving us a few more details about exactly what he fears is happening there, before writing passionately about what new life in Christ actually means.

Sermon

Millions of people utter of this name with love and deep respect. History knows no other man who influenced people’s fate and the course of world events so greatly as [he] did; who, so many years after his death, is remembered so vividly and with such infinite admiration as [he] is …; whose behests and deeds are continued in the acts of his successors…[1]

Of whom am I speaking? A name uttered and revered by millions, years after his death? Well, of course I am speaking about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Who did you think it was? Jesus! These words come from a 1979 guidebook to the Lenin Museum in Moscow that I happened to chance upon in Cambridge University Library several years ago. The words that it uses to speak about Lenin struck me then, and strike me now, with the force of their praise and adulation, and their deeply religious tone.

sh_lenin-cornerOne of the things that many people do not appreciate when we speak about the old Soviet Union is the way in which the cult of Lenin and Stalin sought to take over the language and practice of the Christian faith, which its leaders had sought so hard to eradicate. In many homes, workplaces and schools, you would find a ‘Red Corner’ or a ‘Lenin Corner’, with the icons of the saints that would once have hung there being replaced by images of the great Soviet leaders. One Party publication indeed urged its readers:

If you meet with difficulties in your work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him – of Stalin – and you will find the confidence you need. If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him – of Stalin – and your work will go well. If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him – of Stalin – and you will find that decision.[2]

lenin-cornerHad St Paul been writing to the church in Russia during this period, this would have been the false “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) that he would have attacked in his letter. Encouraging people to put their faith in the hands of a mass murderer like Stalin or raising a flawed human like Lenin to the status of demi-god were and are an empty deceit. Many Christians died or suffered greatly seeking to expose this false philosophy and to turn people back to the only person worthy of our worship, Jesus Christ.

In a similar way, Paul in the passage we have just read seeks to turn his hearers away from their own contemporary false “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8). These verses from Colossians present us with two important challenges, though; challenges that we face with most Bible passages but which are particularly acute here. First, what is the context in which Paul is speaking – what is the specific “empty deceit” he is tackling? Second, what is their application – what on earth do these verses have to say to us here today in Putney? We shall tackle the former issue first.

Context

Asia MinorThe context in which the letter to the Colossians was written and the problem that Paul, whom we believe wrote it, is addressing, is a particularly challenging one for Biblical scholars. We face the same problem we encounter with nearly all the New Testament letters: we only have one side of the discussion. Like over-hearing only one person in a telephone conversation, in Colossians and Paul’s other letters we only hear what he has to say about the situation his correspondents face, not what they have said to him. We know that Epaphras has come to Paul and told him what has been happening in the church that he had helped to found (1:7; 4:12), but we do not know what he said.

The situation is especially difficult in Colossians as we have very little additional evidence from other sources, Biblical or non-Biblical ones. We have to rely almost wholly, therefore, on the clues that Paul gives us in the letter. (Tina spoke about some of this last week.) Fortunately, there are several such clues:

  • it seems that someone is seeking to take the Colossian Christians “captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8);
  • it has something to do with “matters of food and drink” (2:16), with people being told, “Do not taste” (2:21) certain things;
  • also, with “observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (2:16);
  • there is an intriguing reference to the “worship of angels” and “dwelling on visions” (2:18); and
  • seemingly the Colossians are being urged to adopt certain ascetic practices, “insisting on self-abasement” (2:17), denying themselves certain sensual pleasures (2:21) and practising “severe treatment of the body” (2:23).

There are other hints too within the letter about what is going on. The reference to “a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:17) for many commentators seems to be an allusion to the world of Greek philosophy, and its distinction between shadows and reality.  There is also an overall impression that those who are seeking to lead the Colossians astray, considered themselves to be better than others: they are “puffed up without cause” (2:18) and seem to enjoy an “an appearance of wisdom” (2:23).

Why is this important? Well, it is important because these are our scriptures, and we need to know what they say! The whole purpose of Bible Month is that we all improve our Biblical literacy and understand more about the book that is central to our worship. It is not enough simply to put a copy of the scriptures on our communion table and claim to be a “people of the book”. Over the last two thousand years, so much evil has been done in the name of this book by people who have not worked or prayed hard enough to understand it. They have simply cried, “For the Bible tell us so,” and gone on to wage war, commit murder and enslave whole nations. We are called to make the effort to understand what our Bible is actually saying.

Flag of the German Christians, a reactionary movement in German Protestantism associated with Positive Christianity

Flag of the German Christians, which espoused ‘Positive Christianity’

These verses give a good example of this danger. They can be, and have been, interpreted as being anti-Jewish, or even anti-Semitic; Paul telling the Colossian Christians to have nothing to do with those “puffed up” Jews, with their silly food laws, foolish festivals and ridiculous practice of circumcision (2:11). Ultimately, such interpretations of Paul helped lead to the horrendous heresy of the ‘Aryan Jesus’ of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, which denied the Jewishness of Jesus completely. This found its cruellest and most repellent outlet in the ‘Positive Christianity’ movement that combined elements of Nazi ideology, racial theory and Christianity in 1930s Germany.

Whatever these verses in Colossians have to say they must always be read in the context of the Jewishness of Jesus and all the apostles, the coexistence of Jews and Christians for centuries after Christ’s ministry and what Paul, and other Biblical writer, have to say elsewhere in our New Testament, most notably perhaps Romans 9-11.

The most likely explanation, as Tina mentioned last week, is that Paul here is warning against individuals, probably Jewish, within the Colossian community who are seeking to impose additional burdens and beliefs upon the nascent followers of Jesus, drawn from a variety of sources. Judaism is not a monolithic religion today, with many different varieties of practice and belief (just as in Christianity and Islam). This was even more so in the time of Jesus and Paul and the Colossians. The texts that we have from this time, some of which have survived in the Dead Sea Scrolls and from other sources, indicate a flowering of scriptural interpretation and religious practice in this period. This would be curtailed severely (though not stopped absolutely) by the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and the establishment of a more orthodox Judaism that resembled much more the practices of the Pharisees.

At the time this letter was written, though, it would seem that the Colossian Christians were coming under pressure to follow additional practices from a particular local form of Jewish-based practices that had been heavily influenced by other sources, hints of which we find in the text: Jewish mysticism, with its reference to angel worship; Greek philosophy, with its assertion of the distinction between shadow and reality; local Phrygian folk religions (Phrygia was the name of the region immediately around ancient Colossae); and ascetic practices of self-denial. Scholars disagree as to the exact nature of this belief system and its practices but this ‘syncretism’, as it is known, is probably what is going in in the background to these verses. It would certainly explain the vehemence of Paul’s language here and his desire to write directly to the Colossians, who are being weighed down with a lot of additional unnecessary spiritual baggage.

Application

I have spent longer than I would usually do in exploring the background to this passage but I make no apologies for that. As I said, if we wish to consider ourselves ‘people of the Book’ then we have to know what it says. However, the more important question remains, what does this all mean for us today? We have little problems with Phrygian folk religions here in Putney today, but each generation and each nation has had its own false philosophies and empty deceits. For the people of early Soviet Russia, as I mentioned earlier, it was the imposed adulation of Lenin and Stalin. For those of Maoist China, it was the personality cult of the ‘Great Helmsman’. In 19th Century Britain and Europe, it was the pseudo-science of racialism that taught the inherent superiority of the cultural_revolution_posterwhite man over all other peoples. So often, it is easiest to see the true nature of these false philosophies only in hindsight. When we read about those who were swept up in the adulation of Chairman Mao or Hitler or Stalin, they often speak of it as being in a trance or some sort of hysteria, and later, when the scales had fallen from their eyes, it seemed almost like a period of insanity.

What is it that leads us astray today, and to what are we being called back? The letter to the Colossians once more provides the answers as we begin its third chapter. Paul returns to the central theme of his letter: all the Colossians need, and all that we ultimately need, has been provided by Christ (3:1-4). There is no need for prayers to angel, for mystic practices, or for pointless asceticism. In Jesus Christ, God has not only given us the perfect example of how to lead our lives, but has freed us from the law of sin and death, and revealed to us the depths of God’s love for each one of us. That is why Paul writes, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2). He calls us to concern ourselves not with that which is temporal and fallible, but with that which is eternal and divine. In all things, to fix our eyes upon Jesus and the Cross.

resurrectionPaul goes on to highlight that which leads us away from Christ; the hallmarks of false philosophy and empty deceit: lust, greed, anger, malice, slander, lies, deceit (3:5, 3:8-9). If we encounter these traits in ourselves or in the philosophies we espouse, then we encounter the antithesis of Christ. To adapt Paul’s imagery, the clothes – or uniforms – of these empty philosophies may have changed over the millennia, but their heart of deception and manipulation remains unchanged.

Then we have that incredible statement by Paul. A verse that seems light years ahead of its time in the depths of its understanding of God and his human creation:

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col. 3:11)

We think we are so modern with our understandings of ethnic equality, and are only too well aware of how far we have still to travel in our fight against discrimination and hatred. Yet, here we have words that are nearly 2,000 years old and yet which wipe away all the barriers we still cling to with such tenacity. Those false teachers who sought to lead the Colossians astray were “puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking” (2:18). They looked down on others because they were not as enlightened as they, nor following the same rigorous practices they were. In the same way, for centuries, and even in our own day, people have been puffed up and believed themselves superior to others for matters that were of absolutely no consequence: the colour of their skin; which side of an artificial border they happened to be born on; the language they spoke. If we follow Christ, Paul writes, these divisions no longer matter. And if our philosophies tell us otherwise, then they are wrong and they are leading us away from Christ.

For, if we are in Christ, as Paul has already told the Colossians, then we are like a tree bearing rich and plentiful fruit (1:10). Fruit that all the world may see and recognise: “compassion, kindness, humility … patience” (3:12); forgiveness (3:13); peace; thankfulness (3:15); and encouragement (3:16). Most importantly, if we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, and wish to share in all that God has done through his life, death and resurrection, then we must have love in our hearts for all humanity. Not a schmaltzy, Valentine’s Day love but the real kind of love that actually changes us and our world for the better. Paul is warning the Colossians that it doesn’t matter, if they’re achieving spiritual highs by worshipping with angels, or denying themselves food and drink, or all the rest of it. If their philosophies, do not exhibit the essential qualities of kindness, mercy and universal love, then they are false and deceitful. As Paul writes famously in a letter to another church:

if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

As we look at our nation and our world today, it seems a million miles away from the ancient world of Colossae. Yet the challenges remain the same today as we are battered by the competing philosophies of our own age, and as we struggle to ‘be’ church in the 21st Century. Just as before, we have false teachers leading us away from those qualities that Paul hallowed in his letter to the Colossians, the qualities of mercy, compassion and love; and leading us back to those he rejected – to anger, greed and lies. Philosophies that seek to dehumanise and demonise some people, and deny our common humanity. Philosophies that reject anything spiritual and insist that earthly possessions and wealth are all that matter. Philosophies that unquestionably lead us away from Jesus Christ and his will for each one of us. Let us use these precious words in Colossians as the standard by which we judge all the systems and philosophies of our world. And most importantly, let us reject wholeheartedly and unequivocally all that denies Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

[1] Central V.I. Lenin Museum: a guide (ed.) M. Derzhavina (S. Popova – English version), Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979

[2] David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, New York: Random House, 1993, 81; quoted from Philip Yancey, Prayer, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, 5

Bible Month 2: “with you in spirit”

hd-colossians_0This month at the churches I serve we are observing Bible Month. This is an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to foster Biblical literacy by encouraging congregations to focus on a particular book of the Bible during June.  This year we are focusing on New Testament book of Colossians.  Last time I wrote about Colossians 1:1-23 and next Sunday I shall be preaching about Colossians 2:16-3:17. Other preachers are covering the other parts of the book, preaching at the different churches, so I have not produced a sermon for those sections. I thought, however, I would just make a few comments about Colossians 1:24-2:15 today.

Colossians 1:24-2:15 is dominated by a number of key words and two important people. The first of those people is Paul. I wrote last time about the debates over who wrote this letter but, for me and many others, Paul remains the best and most likely candidate. He started the letter (1:1) by asserting his status as an ‘apostle’ – as he needed to do in order to ensure that his words were received with the authority they deserved. In this section, though, he is not afraid to write of his role as ‘servant’ (1:23, 1:25) to the gospel. In Greek this word is ‘diakonos’ from which we get the word deacon. It is a vital reminder to all of those who serve in the church that they are primarily called to be humble servants, leading others to the truth. Hence the ancient title for the Pope: ‘servant of the servants of God’. Such language may make us uncomfortable in the modern world, where we are unused to the idea of servitude, and indeed even find it abhorrent, but Paul is unafraid of the terminology.

62-May1-2018-Laodocia-10168-1Paul is also not afraid to relate how he has suffered and struggled for the church of Christ (1:24, 1:29, 2:1). He is keen to stress that he is working hard for all churches, including the church at Colossae, not just the ones he has founded personally. This is something that Paul writes about elsewhere, for example in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Sometimes this can sound like Paul boasting about how hard he is working, rather like the person in the office who is always complaining about how hard they have to work in comparison to everyone else! Again, though, this is an honest reflection of the life of discipleship. Following Christ is hard, both 2,000 years ago in Asia Minor and today in the UK. Standing up for what we believe is never easy, particularly seeking to uphold the values of Christ in an age that does not seem to value them: mercy, kindness, welcome, honesty, love, etc. Paul’s struggles and suffering are a warning to us all about the realities of following Jesus in our own time and place.

Paul’s sufferings, however, point us to the second, and more important, person in this passage; a person who stands at the centre of Paul’s life and is at the very heart of every word of this epistle: Jesus Christ. In the previous section, we had the magnificent Christ hymn (1:15-20) that sought to express the incredible nature of what Christ had done for us. In this section, Paul goes on to remind the first Christians in Colossae that his and their sufferings are only a pale imitation of what Jesus suffered for us all in order that we might know the depths of God’s grace and love. This is what enables Paul to claim that he is “rejoicing” in his sufferings (1:24) for in this way he is participating in God’s work for his body, the church. Indeed he has been commissioned by God for this very purpose (1:25).

Crucifixion - DaliThe question of why suffering is part of the Christian vocation – why did Christ have to suffer on the cross, and why do we humans have to suffer too – is one that I am continually asked as a minister. It is a question I ask myself too. The answer from the letter to the Colossians is that we may never fully know in this life: it is a ‘mystery’ (1:26, 1:27, 2:2). That is, a hidden thing. Too often we humans claim to have knowledge and understanding far greater than we actually possess. This leaves us vulnerable when we face the truly great mysteries of life; most importantly, the greatest mystery of all – death. With his absolute insistence on the supremacy of Christ in this passage and elsewhere in the letter, Paul is clear that there is only one real answer to the great questions of life: the mystery of what God has done in Jesus Christ. The mystery of why an eternal, infinite and omniscient God would choose to be “incomprehensibly made man” in order to suffer and die on a cross of pain. Yet, this is the good news that Paul brings the Colossians and us: that through Christ’s work on the cross, all suffering, pain and even death itself will one day be no more (2:14). And on that day, as Paul writes elsewhere, there shall be no more mystery; for we shall “know fully”, even as we have been “fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

There is so much more to say about these verses, and I am sorry not to have the time to speak about the circumcision and baptism that Paul writes about here (2:10-12). Finally, though, in this section, we should note how Paul begins to speak about a subject that I shall address more fully in my sermon on Sunday: the “philosophy and empty deceit” that seems to have taken the Colossians captive (2:8). We get several hints in this passage but we shall explore this ancient mystery more fully when we look at verses 2:16-3:17.

 

 

 

Bible Month 1: “To the saints … in Colossae”

This is the talk I gave on Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. I shall also be sharing it with my congregations at Barnes and Roehampton Methodist Churches next week. This is part of the Bible Month initiative, which this year focuses on the book of Colossians. We shall be working through the entire book during the course of this month. The specific text today was Colossians 1:1-23.

hd-colossians_0This June we are, once again, marking Bible Month, an initiative launched by the Methodist Church to increase Biblical literacy among its congregations. In the last two years, we have been encouraged to look at the books of James and Jonah, and this year it is the turn of the short but important New Testament book, the letter to the Colossians. Over the next four weeks, we shall be working through its four chapters each Sunday morning. By the end, I hope that we will all have come to understand far more about this part of our scriptures.

I have the privilege of starting this preaching series and of introducing the whole book. There is much to say and much that I would like us to spend time reflecting upon together. Going through even just the first 23 verses that have been allocated to me this first week, I have highlighted so much that we could usefully discuss all morning. However, I must content myself with pointing out a few key verses and words in the first part of this fascinating book. Let us begin at the beginning!

1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ”

eustache_le_sueur_-_the_preaching_of_st_paul_at_ephesus_-_wga12613As is customary in ancient letters, the epistle to the Colossians begins by identifying its author: the apostle Paul. We should note immediately the extensive debate that has raged since the 19th Century about who actually wrote this text. The Early Church was universal in its opinion that Paul wrote the letter, and Colossians appeared in all the earliest lists of canonical books. The letter, including its opening, is very ‘Pauline’ in many ways – that is in comparison to the other letters that are undoubtedly by the apostle in our New Testament (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, etc.). However, some scholars have questioned this attribution, primarily owing to differences in style (syntax, grammar, vocabulary, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, in theology.

These are important debates and we owe a great debt to Biblical commentators for increasing our knowledge of our own scriptures. The fact is, though, that there is simply not enough conclusive evidence to ‘prove’ that Paul did not write this letter. For me, the best answer is to say that Paul probably used a secretary, or amanuensis to draft the letter, and was writing to a specific audience in Asia, which could help explain some of the stylistic differences. A reasonable date for its composition would also seem to be around 61/62 AD, making it one of Pauls’ last letters, which is why it may reflect a theology that seems more developed than many of his earlier writings.

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1:2 “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae”

As always, Paul’s letter is not written to everyone in the first instance (although they would be widely circulated later). Instead, he is writing to a specific group of people, in a specific place, with specific challenges and gifts. In this case, he is writing to the small Christian community in a place called Colossae.

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Colossae today

Colossae (now sadly a mound of unexcavated ruins) was located in Phrygia in the fertile Lycus Valley, which was part of the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey). It was a wealthy city, famed for its wool in antiquity and on the main roads running north-south and east-west. This aided its prosperity and helped make it a meeting point for travellers and migrants. However, in the 1st Century AD, its prosperity was increasingly threatened by the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, and the moving of the important north-south highway to pass through Laodicea instead. One important thing we know about Colossae is that 2,000 Jewish families had been forcibly moved to this area by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus III in c. 200 BCE (Josephus, Ant. 12.149).

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Theatre at Hierapolis

A final important fact about the city is that Colossae was seemingly destroyed in an earthquake around 61/62 AD. The lack of reference to this event in the letter has helped historians date the it to before that date, perhaps immediately before, in fact. We shall talk in a moment about what we know about the church in this place but for now it is important to stress, once again, that Paul was addressing real people facing real political and economic challenges, in a real time, in a real place.

1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God”

We now come on to the letter proper, and I would begin by challenging you to consider how you start a conversation, a letter or an e-mail? Paul regularly begins his letters with this expression, “Grace to you” (e.g. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3). Even when the apostle has hard words for his audience, he begins with a sincere hope that those to whom he is writing may experience God’s grace and peace. How we understand the word ‘grace’ is a sermon in its own right but we may wish to think of it as something like the undeserved, unearned blessing of God.

How often do we start a conversation – sadly, especially in church – with a question, an accusation or even an insult? (“Why did you choose that third hymn?”; “I see that you still haven’t…!”; “Nice to see you working for a change!”) Paul’s opening words are a vital reminder of how we are meant to treat one another as Christians.

1:3 “In our prayers for you”

prayer-duererAnother common feature of Paul’s letters, is that he will be begin with a prayer for his recipients and / or an assurance that he has been praying for them. In this way, Paul reminds his fellow believers that they are part of an inter-related group of churches that continually upholds one another in prayer. I know from my own ministry and experience, that being assured you have been prayed for makes a big difference to people, often even if they would not consider themselves to be Christians. We need to pray for one another at all times, and importantly we need to build each other up by letting others know that we are praying for them.

1:4 “the saints”

A good Bible quiz question is to ask what Paul’s favourite term of address is for the recipients of his letters (1:2, 1:4; Rom. 1;7, 1 Cor. 1:2, etc.). The answer is ‘saints’. When we read about some of the distinctly un-saintly behaviour in places like Corinth, we may question the appropriateness of this appellation! However, Paul continues to use it.

He does so not to flatter his audience’s egos, nor brush up their halos, but to remind them of their status as those who have been “transferred … into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). They have heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and have been saved by God’s redeeming work through his life, death and resurrection. They do not need to earn this title; they need instead to bear fruit that is worthy of this great gift (1:3, 1:10). For Paul, saints do not live in stained-glass windows; he expects all those who claim the name ‘Christian’ to behave like saints. I am not sure how saint-like you are feeling this morning, but you should know that Paul would expect no less of us all! We are not meant to leave the work of Christ to others, but take up our responsibilities to be saints in every corner of the globe.

1:5 “You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel”

img_1703If there is one thing that our world today needs more of, I think, then it is that most precious quality of ‘hope’. So many people in our world today are desperate for something or someone to inspire hope. Paul here reminds his recipients that they already possess the greatest hope possible: the “truth”, the “gospel” – the good news of Jesus Christ. This is their ultimate source of hope – not their possessions, their knowledge, their economic prospects – but the gospel. The good news of what God has done for all of us through Jesus Christ.

There is an added political dimension to this statement, though. The word translated as ‘gospel’ in English is euangelion in Greek, from which we derive the word evangelism. In the world of the Colossians, this word “denoted a weighty, authoritative, royal, and official message” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). In particular, it was used to refer to an important message from the Roman emperor, who by this time was increasingly regarded as a living god, especially in this loyal province of Asia. For Paul to refer to the ‘gospel’ as somehow relating to the life of a penniless Galilean Jew, who had died on a Roman cross, is a radical, even revolutionary statement, therefore. It challenges us to reflect on where our ‘good news’ comes from, and maybe whether we too need to challenge the authorities and structures that seemingly control it.

1:6 “bearing fruit” / 1:10 “as you bear fruit in every good work”

As mentioned earlier when talking about ‘the saints’, Paul expects the readers of this letter to be living out a life worthy of their high calling. The metaphor of trees, roots and fruit is one that is used commonly throughout the scriptures, perhaps most notably by Paul when talking about the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22-23). It challenges us to consider whether others can see the example of Jesus and the words of the Bible making any positive effect in our lives.

1:7 “This you learned from Epaphras”

The letter to the Colossians tells us that the church there had not been founded by Paul but Epaphras (1:7, 9, 2:1, 4:12). It is possible that he is one of the people who heard the good news during Pauls lengthy stay in nearby Ephesus (Acts 19). Seemingly, Epaphras had gone to visit Paul in prison and was unable to return, hence the letter sent with Tychius (Col. 4:7-8). Epaphras is probably a shortened version of Epahphroditus: not to be confused with Epaphras of Philippians 2:25-30, operating in Macedonia. We may wish to reflect here on who is our Epaphras? Who worked hard so that we might hear the good news of Jesus, and who will be Epaphras for others?

1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”

transfiguration_of_christ_icon_sinai_12th_centuryThis verse starts the most important passage of this letter, and the central thrust of the whole text: the centrality and all-sufficiency of Christ. In these verses, Paul is probably quoting an even older piece of early Christian liturgy or a hymn. Commentators think this because of the way the language and the style changes at this point. In some ways, what is being said here is not very shocking or novel for us. We know all these things: that in Jesus Christ we have seen God; that as a member of the Trinity, Christ was eternally present with God; and that Christ had a key role in the creation of the world. That is because our understanding of who Jesus is part of our essential doctrines and statements of belief. Even we un-liturgical Methodists (who practically never say our creeds!), will have picked this up through our prayers and our hymns. Yet this beautiful bit of prose in Colossians is one of the first times that this belief about who Jesus actually is, was seemingly set down on paper. At the time it was shocking and radical, because there were many (and still are) who believed that Jesus was ‘just a man’ – a very good man, a prophet even, but still just a man.

The language Paul uses draws upon Old Testament texts in part, like those found in the book of Proverbs (8:22-30), which speak about Wisdom being created by God in the earliest stages of Creation. Some of you may also think that this language sounds very familiar, and it is indeed redolent of the opening of John’s gospel (1:1-3) but we have to remember that at this stage John’s gospel was probably still around 30 years away from being written!

62-May1-2018-Laodocia-10168-1This then was a very shocking and radical statement by Paul. It built upon what he and others had come to recognise through their experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and their reflections upon it, but it was still a radical departure for many. It was a doctrine that would ultimately drive an inseparable wedge between Jews and Christians, and would cause immense divisions and discord within the early Christian Church. However, this is not a dry and dusty piece of theology, it is ultimately the source of the “hope” of which the apostle writes (1:5), for it means that in Jesus we have seen and encountered God face to face. If we have Christ, then we need nothing more. That is the point of the whole letter.

1:18 “He is the head of the body, the church”

Finally, the centrality of Christ is the most important theological reflection in this letter but in this verse we find another major development in Christian thinking. Previously, Paul had seemingly thought of every church as a self-sufficient, separate entity. Sadly, this is how many people still act today! However, the apostle makes an incredibly important statement here, in which he suggests that all churches everywhere are in fact part of one body, however different and diverse they may seem. Whatever may divide them – language, culture, worship style, etc. – they are united by their faith in, and love for, Jesus Christ. He is our head. In Greek thought ‘head’ implies not only authority but also sustenance, directing and sustaining the rest of the body. In the same way, we need to emphasise how much our different congregations have in common, rather than our differences, and how if one part of the body suffers, then all parts do.

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There is so much more that we could talk about this morning even in this short passage, not least the work of Christ in reconciling us to God (1:20). However, I know that our Sunday lunches beckon! I hope there has been something that has challenged you or caused you to reflect, though. These are our scriptures and we need to know what they say. Paul is writing to us here today in Putney, just as much as he was writing to the Colossians two thousand years ago, and he has words of wisdom and insight for us all. I pray God’s blessing upon our reading of his holy Word this day and always.

 

Do you want to be made well?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. The reading was John 5:1-18 (Jesus heals on the Sabbath). 

Introduction

If you are lucky enough to travel to the old city of Jerusalem, you will find it a fascinating, colourful and often incredibly hectic city. When I was there a few years ago, I managed to find myself stuck in ‘rush hour’ on a Friday afternoon, when the little alleyways were crammed with people streaming out of the mosques after Friday prayer. It was quite an experience, being trapped in such a slow-moving press of bodies, inching our way through the ancient streets. It was an immense relief, therefore, to turn out of the busy thoroughfares into the quiet of St Anne’s Church. As you can see, this site, owned by the French Republic, is an idyllic garden oasis in the heart of Jerusalem, and it was a great delight to catch my breath in there after the crush of the crowded streets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe site includes not only the attractively simple church of St Anne, but more importantly the ancient site of the pools of Beth-zatha, which will feature prominently in our reading from John’s gospel this morning. The site is an extremely confusing one to look at initially, as, like much of Jerusalem, it has been built on repeatedly over the centuries, with each wave of rulers leaving their mark. It was not until the 19th Century, that archaeologists began to excavate the site, when the site was given to the French as a gift by the grateful Ottoman Empire, and our understanding of it has continued to increase ever since. (Intriguingly, Queen Victoria was offered this site first or the entire island of Cyprus as a gift; she chose the latter!)

The site was initially a simple pool, with a dam to collect the waters of the Beth Zeta valley, built around the 8th Century BC. Over time, another pool was added and at some point the site seems to have become associated with healing, with nearby natural caves serving as baths. By the time of Jesus, the pools seem to have become an Asklepion, dedicated to the cult of Asclepius, the Greek doctor demi-god of healing, which had a wide following in the ancient world across a large number of sites. This may have come about following the Roman occupation of Palestine. At that time, the site was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, so would have been less objectionable to the Jewish authorities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is arguable that the account of Jesus’ visit to the site in John’s gospel is part of a wider polemic against the cult of Asclepius, with John’s Jewish and Christian readers rejecting the god’s powers to heal. This concern about the cult, may explain why some of you hearing the reading today, could think that there is a bit missing! In most modern versions of the Bible – our NRSV included – the text jumps straight from verse 3a to 5, missing out the words in italics:

“In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man …”

These words seem to have been inserted into the gospel account later, and do not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Commentators now believe them to be a later addition to try to make the anticipated healing more Jewish and less pagan, by referring to an angel. You may also be more familiar with the story taking place at ‘Bethesda’, not ‘Beth-zatha’. The place is actually referred to by a bewildering variety of similar names in texts, seemingly owing to the challenges of transliterating a Hebrew word into Aramaic and Greek. Beth-zatha is simply the version favoured by most modern translations of the Bible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the centuries, as the ruins demonstrate, the site was repeatedly destroyed and re-built by Byzantines, Persians, Crusaders and others, and its connection to Beth-zatha was lost. Instead, it was primarily known as the legendary site of Mary the mother Jesus’ birthplace, hence the church dedicated to her mother, St Anne. Scholars actually questioned John’s account of the miracle because there seemed to be no pool in the right place nor any sheep gate. As I have said, though, when archaeologists finally examined the site properly in the mid-19th Century, they discovered a site remarkably similar to that which John describes. You can see in this artists’ recreation, two pools with four colonnades around the outside and one in the middle. The ‘sheep gate’ referred to in the text, seems to be the gate that was later known as the Lion Gate but again archaeology has shown the ancient association with sheep (perhaps the sheep being brought for sacrifice at the Temple) to be accurate, with this early tombstone for a deacon linked to the sanctuary of the sheep pool.

858115636_8f1c63d013I hope that introduction is helpful, setting the reading in context. I also hope, once again, that such additional information may give us greater confidence in our scriptures. Let us hear the reading now.

Sermon

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in

‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6) This alarmingly simple question from Jesus is unique in the gospels. Jesus is asked many questions by people and he poses a number of deeply challenging questions to others, but this specific formulation is unique. On three other occasions, Jesus asks people like Blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want of me?” (Matt. 20:21, Mark 10:51, Luke 18:41) and he meets sick and ill people on numerous occasions, but only here does he pose the specific question: “Do you want to be made well?”. I promise I shall do this only rarely but we should note the emphasis in the original text is on the desire. Literally, “Wish you to be well made?”.

Now, in Greek, Hebrew or English, the question sounds like an odd one. We have just been told that this unfortunate man has been trapped by some sort of seemingly debilitating paralysis and sat by this same pool for 38 years. Of course he wants to be made well! Like nearly all numbers in the Bible, though, there is a hidden significance to the number. According to Deuteronomy it was the length of the Jewish exile In Egypt (Deut. 2:14). More importantly perhaps it was the length of a human generation. Whilst he had been laying by this pool, the world had passed by him – kings and rulers had come and gone; the Temple had been practically re-built; babes in arms had grown up and become parents themselves. All that, while he had still been waiting by this pool, hoping for a stirring of the water and a cure. Why wouldn’t he wish to be made well?

Palma_il_Giovane_001Many commentators note, though, that the man never actually says ‘yes’. He never tells Jesus he wants to be made well. Instead, he give a slightly rambling answer about the pool, and the stirring of the water and why it can’t be done. He never says, “Yes, I want to be made well.”.

Now there has been much speculation about this man, and he is often painted in a rather poor light by Christian commentators as someone lacking in faith, who then goes off to sneak on Jesus to the Temple authorities. He is often contrasted poorly with the man born blind whom we meet in chapter 9, who is similarly cured and interrogated by the chief priests but bravely defends Jesus (John 9:1-34). That is not the case, and it’s not really the purpose of the story. Nor should we read the man’s illness in this chapter as a sign of sin or divine punishment, because Jesus explicitly denies that connection later in the gospel (John 9:3). Instead, I believe we should read Jesus’s warning about sinning no more in verse 14 of today’s reading as a piece of good, general advice, which I would commend to us all!

What we could say, I believe, is that the man almost certainly thought that healing was impossible now for him, and that he was almost afraid of being cured. 38 years is a long time to spend by a pool, waiting to be healed. Those five porticoes and the other sick and ill people sheltering beneath them were all the man seemingly knew. I don’t think we can blame him for being almost afraid to face an unknown future. Horrible as his condition was, there was some comfort and security beside that pool.

For me, as I read that passage I find many parallels that ring true with this story. As a minister, I meet many people who are desperate to be cured, and many who will never be truly healed of terrible conditions, both physical and mental. I do also encounter, though, those who seem trapped by their own illnesses and their state of dependence. Those who cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel whatsoever. Or those for whom something could be done to improve their lives. But any suggestions are always quickly brushed away – with comments like, “It’d never work,” or, “It’s not for me.”. For too many folks, however painful and difficult the current situation may be, the prospect of making changes to improve the situation seems far, far worse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have seen the situation most acutely perhaps amongst those suffering from forms of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are both wonderful organisations that do a huge amount to really change peoples’ lives. They are both clear, though, that the first step for anyone wishing to join their ranks is the desire to be made well: “the moment of decision”. It doesn’t matter what other support or help you have in place; until there is a decision by the individual concerned to be made well there is nothing that can be done.

I am reminded of the incredibly powerful testimony I heard from a local preacher in my last circuit. He was a young man who came from a childhood of neglect, family breakdown, abuse, self-harm (he still has scars to show it), and a complete lack of confidence in his own appearance and who he was. He’d dropped out of school, had become clinically obese and just sat playing video games 24/7. It was his church-going grandfather who reached out to him and challenged him: “Do you want to be made well? Do you want to let the power of Christ change your life?”. Like the man in our story: he was trapped in prison but it was a prison he knew, and which required no effort on his part. He told me how difficult it had been to take the first step out of that living hell but he eventually made the decision to say “Yes”. Few of us can appreciate how hard it was for him to turn his back on those who had abused him and move away from a home where he could never be happy; to return to some form of education; to believe in himself once more; to start going to the gym, to become a youth worker himself. It was not, and is not, an easy road – but he is a wonderful witness to the possibility of healing and transformation, and the redemptive power that can be found in Christ, if we reach out in his name to help.

The question, “Do you want to be made well?” is one that we could legitimately ask of so many people, of so many churches and so many issues facing our nation and world at present. We could all think of examples. People who want to turn away addictive habits but cannot muster up the will to reach the ‘moment of decision’. Churches who want to include all ages but can’t quite make the sacrifices necessary to welcome everyone properly. Nations who want a cleaner, greener environment but aren’t willing to give up their addiction to polluting cars or pay the price for effective alternatives. The examples write themselves and all of us could think of appropriate ones.

For each of us here today, the question that Christ asked that sick man by the pool in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was then. “Do you want to be made well?” For each us the nature of our sickness will be different – and some may believe they have nothing wrong with them at all. Is it an addiction; is it our love of money or status; our fear of change or losing control; our unwillingness to believe that there is a force greater and wiser than ourselves in the universe; our pride; our anger; our unwillingness to see the world as it truly is, letting go of our comfortable prejudices and stereotypes?

For each, the answer will be different. But for each the challenge is the same. Will we let Jesus Christ into our life? Let him turn them and everything we thought we knew upside down. Will we trust in him and his Word alone to be our guide and comforter? Will we take Christ by the hand and leave the comforting world of the porticoed pool behind us, and embrace with faith the new visions he opens us before us? And will we speak up for Christ? Will we be the hand that reaches out in the darkness to pull someone else up and help them become well?

As we face the challenge of a new week, of new decisions to be made, let us seek the power of Christ to heal ourselves and to heal our world in his name. Let us face that critical question for ourselves: do we truly wish to be made well? If we do, then let us reach out our hand to the loving embrace of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. For by his grace we can be free and be made whole once more. That is the hope Christ offered to the man at the pool of Beth-zatha so long ago, and it is the hope he offers each one us today. Amen.

 

A guide in a strange land

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the sermon I preached today at Wesley Methodist Church, Mandalay in Myanmar. I have been out here for nearly two weeks now, helping to train local preachers in Mandalay and Tahan, and meeting local Methodists. It has been a fascinating experience. The text I chose for today was John 14:1-20. The sermon was translated into Burmese.

Brothers and sisters, I bring you greetings in Christ from the Methodist Church in Great Britain and from my congregations in London. It has been a great privilege and delight to spend the last ten days in the beautiful country of Myanmar, as a guest of the Methodist Church. This is my first time in the country and I can assure you that the warmth and generosity of the people I have met are things that I shall treasure forever.

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Preaching with Dr Khwasiama (far left) at Wesley Church, Mandalay

During the vast majority of my time here, I have been very fortunate to have had the company of Dr Khwasiama (the Principal of the Mandalay Theological College). After a long and tiring journey from London, it was his friendly face that welcomed me to Mandalay, and since then he has fulfilled that most important of roles for any traveller: my guide. He has acted as an interpreter, allowing me to speak with people from across the country (as he is doing now!). He has shown me where to go and arranged my itinerary, taking me up to Tahan in the north and even as far as Letpaunchang district near the Indian border. He has introduced me to local customs and culture, explaining things that would otherwise have been incomprehensible to me, such as how to wear a longyi. He has even kindly let me ride behind him on his motorbike – just like a local! In every way, he has been the perfect guide.

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Beautiful Bagan

For the last few days, though, I have been without Dr Khwasiama, who stayed in Mandalay, while I took a few days holiday in beautiful Bagan. I had a wonderful time there and saw some incredible sights but I was very aware that I was suddenly without my guide. There was no one to meet me when I arrived, I did not know exactly where to go and what to do sometimes, and there were many times that I struggled to understand, and to be understood by, local Burmese people.

The situation immediately reminded me of the experience of the apostles as they realised that Jesus was not going to stay with them forever, as we heard in our reading today from John’s gospel. Jesus had been their teacher, friend and their guide for the last three years. He had led them in them itinerant ministry across Judea and Galilee. He had organised them and brought them together as a recognisable group, despite their differences. He had opened their mind to new ideas and concepts, and acted as an interpreter to the strange language of ‘the Kingdom of God’. And now he was going to leave them.

We can hear the concern and desperation in their voices in the passage. Thomas cries out: “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Philip asks for just one more piece of information, one more answer before Jesus goes. In the days after Jesus’ death, and after his ascension, the apostles will desperately miss their guide and will seem lost without him.

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Training local preachers in Mandalay

All of us know such times. Times far, far harder than my enjoyable few days in Bagan. Times when we struggle to know what to do. Struggle to see a way ahead. Struggle to choose the right path for ourselves. We desperately need a guide to show us right from wrong; to show us whom to trust and who not; someone to take us by the hand and lead us through our journey of life.

During my time in Myanmar, I have met many wonderful people working in the Church doing great things: local preachers, ministers and lay people. All of them working tirelessly for the Kingdom of God and their communities. One particular highlight was attending the district youth gathering in Tahan, and seeing so many young people gathering together for worship and fellowship: a great sign for the church’s future. However, I am also aware that the Methodist Church in Myanmar has important decisions to make and difficult challenges to meet. In many cases, they are the same as my church faces in Great Britain. How do we respond to the changing world in which we live – changing societies, changing technologies, changing patterns of work and life? How do we use our scarce resources in our ministry – do we prioritise buildings, training, people? How do we share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who seem to place no value whatsoever on spiritual matters?

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District youth event in Tahan

For all of these questions, both in our personal lives and in the life of our church, we must turn to the three guides which Jesus left to his apostles.

First, we must turn to the words that Jesus bequeathed to his Church, the Bible. In Bagan, like every other tourist destination in the world, you can see travellers clutching books. These are the essential guidebooks (though many are now on people’s phones) telling us what to see, where to stay, where to eat and much more. I remember once losing my guidebook when I was travelling in North Africa and I felt like I had lost my right hand! The Church has been left a much better guidebook, though, in the pages of holy scripture and most importantly of course the gospels. Sometimes, I wish the Bible was as easy to understand as my guidebook, with its clear index and its simple lists, like ‘The top five things to do in Mandalay’. Nevertheless, the scriptures contain so much knowledge, wisdom and experience that its pages are truly a treasure beyond price. The more we read and reflect upon the Bible’s contents, the more we may recognise God’s guiding hand in our lives and in our world. It is vital that as Christians we take every opportunity to read and study the scriptures, so that we may not be led astray by false prophets and guides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut if we read our books alone, then we may struggle to understand them. While I was in Bagan, I repeatedly came across people trying to make sense of their guidebooks – interpreting maps or directions, for example – and it was only together that we could work out what it was trying to tell us. I also know that I have learned so much when travelling from the tales and experiences of others, who have walked a path before me. That leads me neatly to our second guide.

When Christ left his apostles, he left them not as individuals but as a group, a group that would become his Church. During the local preacher training sessions, we emphasised that Jesus never sent his disciples out singly, one-by-one, but always with at least one companion (Mark 6:7 / Luke 10:1). And from its earliest days, Christianity has been founded not on individuals but groups: congregations, which together make up the Body of Christ on earth. Congregations that, just like the apostles and the first disciples, bring together all kinds of different people with different skills and experiences but who are working for a common purpose. As individuals, we may struggle to understand our scriptures and to discern the will of God, but together we can help lead one another into the truth. We can offer comfort and support, challenge and inspiration. That is why John Wesley was very clear that solitary Christianity is almost impossible, and why Methodism has always emphasised the importance of being part of a connected church: house groups, classes, circuits, districts. And that is why it so important that, even when we find if difficult and frustrating, we need to be active members of our congregations, so that we may guide others and in turn be guided by them.

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Meeting staff members at the Tahan Institute of Theology

Filling and inspiring both the Bible and the Church, though, is the third and most important guide that we possess for our journey through life. This is the guide promised by Jesus to those desperate disciples just before his trial and crucifixion: “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). In a few weeks, we shall be celebrating the great day of Pentecost, when God’s Spirit filled the apostles like a mighty rushing wind. It is that Spirit which turns a simple book into the precious words of eternal life, which is the Bible. It is that same Spirit which fills God’s Church today, and turns a group of ordinary people into a storehouse of wisdom and encouragement. It is that same Spirit which fills our lives too – if we let it – guiding us ever deeper into the eternal mystery of God’s love for each one of us.

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Wesley Church, Mandalay

It is a Spirit that will be the guide we need through every stage of our journey through life. Sometimes it will comfort and reassure us. At other times, it will challenge our deepest-held convictions. And at others, it will lead us to places that we never thought we could possibly go. But through that Spirit, working in scripture, in our Church and in our everyday lives, we may encounter the risen Christ, just as the apostles did so long ago.

So be of good cheer, brothers and sisters, for God has not left us “as orphans” (John 14:18) to wander through the journey of life alone and uncared for. He has left us all with the best and greatest of guides, Jesus Christ, who one day shall lead us all to our eternal home. May you know the presence and power of that guide in your lives and in this church, today and always. Amen.

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Sunset over Bagan

Resurrection re-creation

Image:Happy Easter! This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts were: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 24:1-12.

This Holy Week began with the news of the disastrous fire at Notre Dame in Paris. Tragically, it has ended with reports of the terrible tragedy in Sri Lanka, as ordinary women and men going about their business were killed in co-ordinated terrorist attacks. Our Easter story speaks powerfully to both these incidents, I believe.

Many of us will have our own particular memories of Note Dame in Paris and I am sure that we were all distressed at the images we saw on our television screens and in our newspapers, like this one. It seemed a scene of total devastation, with not a chance that anything had survived.

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris fire aftermath, France - 16 Apr 2019

Yet, as the week has gone on, images like this have been released. Pictures showing both the scale of what has been lost and the seeming ‘miracle’ of what has survived. We have also witnessed the wonderful outpouring of generosity and goodwill toward the cathedral’s renovation, and the determination from all sides that it will rise from the ashes again.

Yet, when Notre Dame is re-built and re-opened (as I am confident it will be in time), it will not be a carbon copy of the church that many of us will have visited. Much will be unchanged, and much will be identical to the human eye. But it will in subtle – and not so subtle – ways be different. There will be new roof timbers, new artworks, a new spire, and probably a new fire alarm system! Importantly, the attitude of those coming to the building will also be different. Those very moving scenes of people praying by the Seine as the cathedral burnt were a poignant reminder that so often we only truly value a thing once it has gone. I hope that when Notre Dame re-opens that same spirit will continue, and worshippers and visitors alike will treasure the building and all it stands for a little more than perhaps they have done in the past.

Notre Dame - people prayingOur readings speak of that change as well. We are all now experts on the book of Isaiah at Barnes (!), after spending Lent studying some of the book’s key passages. Those who attended the Bible studies will immediately have recognised that today’s passage came from near the end of the book; the section sometimes referred to as ‘third Isaiah’. We believe that these chapters were written after the Israelites had returned from their exile in Babylon, and were trying to rebuild their city, temple and nation after the devastation of war and conquest.

The prophet, though, is calling them not simply to return and rebuild their city and society exactly as they were before. He is urging them to allow God to work his re-creation among them. The people of Israel were changed by the experience of exile, we know, and many of the foundations of their faith and identity, like the monarchy and the temple, had been destroyed, and other innovations, like the synagogue, had come into being. Like the architects of Notre Dame, they could not simply recreate an exact replica of what had been there before, even if they had wanted to. In our passage, the prophet Isaiah offers instead the vision and challenge of recreating their nation in a radically new way under God’s holy rule. A new Jerusalem:

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
   or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime …
They shall not labour in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. (Isaiah 65:19, 23)

What an incredible vision of how the world could be, if we were accept the transformative power of God.

We believe that we glimpsed sight of that new Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday, when the disciples (male and female) gaped in wonder at the empty tomb. This was no “idle tale” (Luke 24:11) but a life-changing, world-transforming event. Not least for those apostles and disciples who could hardly believe what had happened. Each one of them returned from the tomb, changed by the experience.

Hans_Memling_-_Resurrection_-_WGA15008Unlike the other gospels, Luke’s accounts of the resurrection (and we shall hear more of them over the coming weeks), come in the middle of his writing, not the end. They mark the end of his first volume (‘Luke’) and the beginning of his second (Acts). These two volumes, allow us to see clearly the incredible transformative power of the resurrection. The disciples in Luke’s gospel are not quite as dim-witted and hapless, perhaps, as they are in Mark’s version. They are undoubtedly prone to error, doubt and fear, though; they are only too human and seemingly utterly dependent upon Jesus. Once they have seen the risen Christ, however, it is a different story, and we see them taking on the mission of Christ with a courage and dedication that seems impossible only a few chapters before. They returned from the tomb changed for good by the resurrection.

These stories of return and change resonate throughout our own lives. I spent two years teaching English in China after university, and one of my clearest memories was when I eventually came home. My parents collected me from the airport and they eagerly drove me home. We drove up the street where I had lived my whole life until the age of 18 in Maidenhead (a small town, west of London) and I was struck forcibly by the fact that seemingly nothing had changed whatsoever. The houses that I had walked past countless times on my way to school looked identical in nearly every way. Yet I was different. I had been changed forever by my experiences in China, and could never go back to being the person I had been before. I almost wanted to shout at the street about all the things I had seen and done. Return could not mean regression.

On an international level, we might reflect on the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Yet another shocking act of indiscriminate violence in the long history of such recent acts. One, though, that has not simply been allowed to be forgotten but has resulted in real change. New laws taking guns off the streets of New Zealand. Concerted efforts to rebuild community links. A united desire to change for the better. It is a pointed reminder to others that ‘warm words’ without action mean nothing.

Our world today is longing for such transformative experiences. Time and again we have been brought face to face with the reality of knife crime, climate change, the migrant crisis, and countless other challenges we face as a nation and world. We have experienced its horrors through our newspapers and television screens, yet seemingly we are mildly shocked for a time and then return to our lives unchanged; our world view unaltered.

resurrectionThe challenge of Easter is for us to allow ourselves to be changed by the good news of Easter. Not simply to return from the tomb, saying ‘How strange!’ and then going on with life as though nothing had changed. For that is to deny the power of the story completely, and to turn into nothing more than a fairy story for children. Rather it is to recognise the power of the resurrection to change our lives and the world forever, for good. As Paul affirmed after his encounter with the risen Christ: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). The challenge of the empty tomb is for us to take our part in God’s story of redeeming the world; to be re-created, and in turn to help re-create.

The events in Sri Lanka this day remind us only too painfully of the need for such re-creation. The need for our world to turn away from the politics and ideologies that survive solely on hatred and anger, division and fear. Ideologies that are fed and perpetuated by the sort of injustice that made Isaiah rail so fiercely against his contemporaries. The injustice of a world where some have everything, while others must seemingly be content with nothing.

Yet it is also too clearly a poignant reminder of the limits of our human response. With all our medical advances, all our charity, all our technology, we cannot bring those people back to life. The Easter story is the ultimate affirmation that God does not leave his people to suffer alone. In a world of sin and death, a world riven by terrorism and oppression – the same world that Isaiah, the apostles and we know – the resurrection is the light in the darkness. It is the only hope to which we can cling, in the face of fear, illness and even death. It is the promise that when we reach the limits of our human response, God’s power breaks through to heal and redeem us. It is the fulfilment of the promise made to Isaiah that he shall glimpse the new Jerusalem where, “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress”. It is the absolute assurance that we too one day shall be changed “from glory into glory, ‘til in heaven we take our place”. May we, and all God’s world, know that truth in our hearts this Easter Sunday and evermore. Amen.

 

Blessed among women…

This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church today. It was Mothering Sunday but I chose texts that focussed on the role of women in scripture: Exodus 1:13-21; 1 Samuel 19:8-13; Luke 8:1-3.

Mothering SundayA few years ago, when I was at the Christian festival Greenbelt, I was lucky enough to hear John Bell speak. If you ever get the chance to do so yourself, I strongly recommend it, as he is a most fascinating, challenging and engaging speaker. You may indeed have heard him on Thought for the Day. Not only is he a Church of Scotland minister and an active member of the Iona Community, but he is also a prolific hymn writer and actually contributed more hymns to our new book, Singing the Faith, than anyone other than Charles Wesley. Quite a feat!

When I saw him, he was talking, in part, about one of those new hymns; in fact, the one we have just sung – ‘God it was who said to Abraham’ (full text reproduced below). He told us how he had been inspired to write it because of the serious lack of knowledge he found in the Church concerning the role of women in our Bible. As you will have noted, in the hymn he pairs a well-known male figure in each verse with an often less well-known, or less valued, female one. When he spoke, he really challenged my Biblical knowledge by citing individuals and incidents that I often barely recognised, such as the three passages we have just heard read. He confronted us all forcibly with the almost inevitable male bias with which we encounter scripture.

Many of us will be only too familiar with some of the more unfortunate texts in the Bible that seem to denigrate or undermine the role of women. Verses such as those we find in 1 Corinthians, which read:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:33-36)

No wonder, so many of us struggle with Paul at times! On this Mothering Sunday, therefore, I thought it might be appropriate for us all to recall the vital role that women have played in the story of our salvation with a quick gallop through the Bible.

Beginning at the beginning, we immediately tackle the problem of how women are represented in the Bible with Eve. She, of course, tempted Adam and led him astray, causing all the problems in the world. Is that what the Bible says? No! If we actually read the text, Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve were together when they ate of the forbidden fruit, and there is no mention of temptation whatsoever (Gen. 3:6). Adam needed no help from anyone to sin by himself!

Sarah and AbrahamLater in Genesis, among many other women, we have Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the first of the women in John Bell’s hymn. While Abraham is always – rightly – lauded as an exemplar of faith, it is the elderly Sarah who actually had to risk her own life in the extremely dangerous act of giving birth to Isaac (Gen. 18:9-14). Even today, with all our medical advances, we sadly all know the continuing and very real dangers that still surround childbirth.

Then in Exodus (and do not fear, we are not going to tackle each book of the Bible!), when women seem barely to be mentioned for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we have Miriam (Exodus 15:20). She is the prophetess, who played her tambourine after the Israelites escaped Egypt and passed through the Red Sea, dancing before the people. Later, the prophet Micah will list her alongside Moses and Aaron as those whom God sent to guide God’s people at a time of crisis (Micah 6:4).

Shiphrah and PuahBefore that, though, we have the two midwives we encountered in our reading, Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:13-21). Definitely not the weaker, feeble sex, they stood before the mighty, but clearly not terribly bright, Pharaoh and saved the children of the Israelite slaves. It seems very appropriate that God worked through two midwives when, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God is described as a deliverer or midwife – someone who brings humanity to birth:

Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God. (Isaiah 66:9)

The book of Judges is replete with rather dubious male ‘heroes’, like the deeply flawed Gideon and Samson. But we also encounter women like Deborah, who ruled Israel as a judge for forty years and secured its peace (Judges 4-5). Also, her contemporary Jael, one of my favourite Biblical characters. She cleverly let the wicked Canaanite general Sisera – a man whom entire armies were searching for – sleep in her tent (Judges 4:17-22). This supposedly feeble woman, though, then did what no other man in Israel had been able to do. She took a mallet and a tent peg, and nailed it through his head, freeing her people from tyranny and oppression. As John Bell observed in that talk I attended, a difficult story, the moral of which perhaps is never to go camping! But it certainly shows that God has as much use for women in his plan of deliverance as he does for men, and that they are definitely not the weaker sex!

Abigail and DavidNext, we have Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who pleaded with God for a child and had to risk the insults of Eli the old priest at the Temple, who thought she was drunk, but eventually bore the great prophet and kingmaker Samuel (1 Sam. 1:12-18). Less well-known in the same book of the Bible, we have Abigail, the wife of Nabal (1 Sam. 25). David, who at this stage is something of an outlaw, comes to the rich Nabal’s farm and seeks provisions for him and his men. The foolish Nabal ignores all the duties of hospitality and sends them off with a flea in his ear. David with 400 armed men at his side is not about to take this insult lying down and is just telling his men to strap on their swords and prepare for a raid, when the wise Abigail appears with plenteous supplies of wine and food. She placates the future king, thus saving her husband and her household from certain rape and pillage. Would it really have been better if she had obeyed Paul’s instructions, kept silent, and deferred to her idiot husband? Later in the same story, we have the account of Michal, David’s wife, which we also heard read. An ingenious woman who again ensures that the Lord’s will is not frustrated.

Indeed, we could go on for some time in the Old Testament, and recite the well-known stories of Ruth and Esther, as well as the lesser-known ones like Susanna, Rizpah and Tamar. We could think of the feminine images used in the Psalms and Proverbs, where Wisdom is of course a woman, or in Isaiah, where God speaks through the prophet, promising:

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. (Isa. 66:13)

We need to move on, though, and mention something of the New Testament, where we have even more famous examples like Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, and of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now there is much we could say here but suffice to note that it is clear that Mary herself was no shrinking violet, but a strong woman who had to endure much, and who played a vital role in the upbringing and life of our Lord, and helped continue his work after his Ascension.

Anna and SimeonWe also have Anna the prophetess, who recognised the infant Jesus as the long-promised Messiah (Luke 2:36-38), and of course those women that we heard about in the reading from Luke (8:1-3). The women who actually funded Christ’s earthly mission, and allowed him and his male disciples to do their work. It was these same women too who, unlike the male disciples, would remain faithful to Jesus until the bitter end, and who would be rewarded by the first sight of the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday.

It is not only the individuals that are important, though, but how we read these precious texts that needs to be challenged too. We all know that Jesus had twelve male apostles, whom we see endlessly depicted in art and stained-glass windows, but how much do we actually know about most of them? Compare what the gospels say about them to what we know about the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel, for example (John 4): the only person in the gospels, other than Jesus, to get nearly a whole chapter devoted to her!

More words are written about the Syro-Phoneciean woman Jesus encounters in Mark (7:24-30) and the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with perfume (Luke 7:36-50) than about eight of the twelve male disciples! (And the former was arguably the only person in the gospels who made Jesus change his mind!)

Woman at the wellConsider the the way Jesus speaks to women as well. Can you think of an example of Jesus berating his male disciples for their stupidity or lack of faith? Of course, you can; just read Mark’s gospel! But can you think of a time he berates the women? I cannot. But I am able to recall the woman with internal bleeding being regarded by Jesus as a model of faith (Matt. 9:20-22); and the woman who put two coins in the Temple treasury being the model of generosity (Luke 21:1-4); and the woman who persistently pestered the judge for justice as being a model of prayer (Luke 18:1-8).

And finally, despite the fact that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14 are all that many people seem to know about women in the New Testament, it is absolutely clear that women played a vital role in the life of the Early Church. Women like Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, who became the first European we know about to become a Christian (Acts 16:14-15). Chloe, who led the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11); Phoebe, who served as a minister alongside Paul (Rom. 16:1); Aquila, who fearlessly hosted one of the earliest churches in her own home (1 Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:3); and many others.

Now, at the end of the service today, there will be a short Bible quiz to see how many of these women you have remembered and where they came in the Bible! Not really.

If you remember any one of those examples, I will be delighted. What I really want us to go away with today, though, is a clear recognition of the role that women play in our scriptures, both as mothers and not. Sadly, to do so we must often peer through the grime of 2,000 years of intentional and unintentional misogyny practised by God’s Church. Despite their best efforts, though, the role of women in God’s plan for our salvation shines through, and the only way that we can deny that is by selectively reading the Bible. By saying that we like this story but we do not like that one, because it makes us think too hard or challenges our comfortable world view. That is a bad habit that Christians have clung on to for far too long.

If we ignore the role of women in scripture and the femininity of God’s divine nature, which the scriptures speak about so clearly, then we only see part of the picture. We are like the blind man in the gospels, who sees something like trees walking when Jesus first heals him (Mark 8:24). Or as Paul put it, “we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor.13:12, KJV).

For too long, we have acted as though we have to be ashamed of our own Bible because it seems to contradict the evidence and experience of our own lives about the talents and abilities of women. Let us reclaim our scriptures and show the world with confidence that it is full of wonderful stories relevant to our own age, and every age. That when we think we are being terribly modern and revolutionary, we actually find that God has been there all the time, waiting for us to catch up! Let us always hold on to the incredible power of those words we find right at the beginning of our story with God:

So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. …
And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Gen. 1:27-31)

Amen.

 

1. God it was who said to Abraham,
‘Pack your bags and travel on.’
God it was who said to Sarah,
‘Smile and soon you’ll bear a son.’
Travelling folk and aged mothers
wandering when they thought they’d done —
this is how we find God’s people,
leaving all because of One.

2. God it was who said to Moses,
‘Save my people, part the sea.’
God it was who said to Miriam,
‘Sing and dance to show you’re free.’
Shepherd-saints and tambourinists
doing what God knew they could —
this is how we find God’s people,
liberating what they should.

3. God it was who said to Joseph,
‘Down your tools and take your wife.’
God it was who said to Mary,
‘In your womb, I’ll start my life!
Carpenter and country maiden
leaving town and trade and skills —
this is how we find God’s people,
moved by what their Maker wills.

4. Christ it was who said, ‘Zacchaeus,
I would like to eat with you.’
Christ it was who said to Martha,
‘Listening’s what you need to do.’
Civil servants and housekeepers,
changing places at a cost —
this is how Christ summons people,
calling both the loved and lost.

5. In this crowd which spans the ages,
with these saints whom we revere,
God wants us to share their purpose
starting now and starting here.
So we celebrate our calling,
so we raise both heart and voice,
as we pray that through our living
more may find they are God’s choice.

John L. Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958)

Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 464
Words: From Love From Below © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH  Scotland. www.wgrg.co.uk

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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.