Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

On Good Friday, we left Jesus dead on the Cross.  His dead body was taken by two secret disciples for burial after one of them, Joseph of Arimathea, obtained permission to do so from the Roman Governor Pilate.  Jesus’ last words on the Cross had stressed the finality of it all:

‘After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’’ (John 19:28)

‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)

‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.’ (Luke 23:46)

Now today we interpret these words in the light of subsequent events, but to his mother and brother who, we are told, were at the Cross and able to hear his words, there would be no mistaking their significance.  This was the end.  Not only, ‘It is finished’, but ‘I am finished.’  Whatever it was that Jesus had intended to accomplish when he submitted to baptism by John and began his ministry, it was all over now.

We need to realize that for those there at the Cross, there could be no other possibility.  It is hard for us knowing there is more to come to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there.  What is certain is that as far as those who were there were concerned: death was death.  As good Jews, they would have been under no illusion about that.

In the Old Testament, there is little by way of hope for life after death.  The grave was a place of darkness to be avoided for as long as possible.  ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ is the attitude, for example, of the author of Ecclesiastes.  Such hope as there is, is for the nation rather than the individual.

During the time between the Testaments, and as a result of the intense suffering that many Jews had to endure, there developed the hope that one day there would be a resurrection and God would reward the righteous and punish the wickedness.  This, however, would also be the Last Day of this present world order.  Until then, there was nothing to look forward to.  Even this limited hope for the future was too much for many Jews and most of the Priests did not accept it.  So the best hope was that maybe Jesus would be counted amongst the righteous on the Last Day, but even that was only a distant hope - for now there was no hope.

In the Greek world, when it came to the possibility of life beyond death, while a significant number of Greeks believed that the soul would survive the body, this could be a somewhat vague and abstract notion.  There was, however, no expectation of resurrection.

You may remember when St Paul went to Athens and spoke to the Areopagus, the City Council, they were very receptive to his message until he spoke about the ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Then we are told: ‘some scoffed.’  For many Greeks, it was far from obvious that this was such a good idea.

The Cross, then, was to all intents and purposes the end.  How could it be anything else?  It is only when we grasp this that we can begin to understand the sadness the followers of Jesus must have felt.

They had had such high hopes, but these weren’t ignorant idealists.  They had truly believed in him.  Jesus himself acknowledged both their sacrifice and friendship.  Even in the garden of Gethsemane, they had been prepared to die to support him.  What was harder for them was watching him die.  For in their eyes, this meant that he died a failure.  What had it all been for?  They had been as deluded as apparently he had been.

It is only when we get this that we can get some of the shock of Easter Sunday.  The disciples weren’t gathered together behind closed doors waiting for something to happen.  There was nothing that could happen.  This also goes some way to explain their bewilderment when something did happen!  It took them a while to take it in.

But something amazing and unexpected did happen.  Something that was to change their lives and which was to go on to change many more lives, and which is still changing lives today.

It all began when the women went to the tomb to attend to his body.  It was gone.  Notice their reaction is to assume that someone must have moved the body.  Their thought is not that Jesus is alive.  Mark’s Gospel, as it now is, finishes with them being terrified.  They realize something has happened, they just don’t quite know what.  It is only after Jesus explains it to Mary Magdalene that things begin to become clear.

After Jesus appears to the disciples, his followers realize that it wasn’t the end after all.  Jesus is risen.  Jesus is alive.  And they are to go on to be his witnesses, proclaiming his resurrection to others.  The story has a happy ending after all!

So what was it all about?  What has been the point of all the events that we have been thinking about over the past few days?  Why did Jesus say, ‘It is finished’, when now it seems that it was anything but?  Was Jesus as surprised as everyone else to be alive?  Apparently not, at least not according to what the Gospels record Jesus as having said to his disciples after his resurrection. 

So what was it all about?  Jesus surely has some explaining to do.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus said to them that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die.  And that is how they came to understand it.  Excited and delighted though they were that Jesus was risen and alive, in seeking to explain it all, they focused on his death and on the Cross.

Just look at how much space the Gospels devote to the events of the crucifixion compared to the resurrection.  Mark’s Gospel has 5 chapters in our Bibles describing the crucifixion and 8 verses on the resurrection.  St Paul writes to the Corinthians that he preaches Christ crucified.

This is not for one moment to suggest that they didn’t see the resurrection as important.  Of course, they did.  The resurrection, however, was inextricably bound up with the crucifixion and what it meant.  The resurrection established that Jesus’ death was of significance. 

This, I would suggest, is not quite how we approach it today.  The message coming from most churches at Easter and throughout the year goes something like this:

‘Jesus lived a good and exemplary life.  In his teaching and by his example, he taught us how God wants us to live.  This made him enemies and for this he suffered and died.  But God intervened and raised him from the dead.  He now offers life to all who believe in him and who seek to live as he lived and taught.  This life begins now and will continue after death.  We are a resurrection people.’

The problem is that this sounds very believable and contains sufficient truth to make it so.  It fails however, to explain one thing: why the Cross was so important to the disciples.  You would think that they would want to move on.

Instead, the more they thought about it, the more convinced they became that the Cross and the death of Jesus were the key to everything.  It wasn’t simply an accident or the result of historical forces and circumstances.

The question the New Testament asks is: who crucified Christ?

The answer is both simple and complicated.  Obviously, legally, it was the Romans.  The Jews didn’t have the legal authority to do so.  However, the Jewish authorities both instigated and demanded it.  As St Peter puts it to them: they crucified Christ by the hands of sinful men.  They got the Romans to do what they could not do.  The crowds who called for his crucifixion and those who betrayed and deserted him all also had their share in the guilt.

Then the New Testament writers also teach that we too share in the blame as it was the sin of humanity that led people to crucify Christ.  As sinful human beings, we share humanity’s guilt.

The Romans, the Jewish authorities, the crowds, those alive at the time, you and I, all share in the responsibility for Jesus’ death.

But the shocking and surprising answer the New Testament gives to the question of who was ultimately responsible for our Lord’s death is: God.

This will come as no surprise to anyone at the Lent Bible Studies.  During them, we saw how St Paul teaches that Christians were ‘chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.’  St John describes Jesus as the ‘Lamb slain before the foundation of the world’.

The resurrection led the disciples to see the Cross in a new light.  Not now was Jesus crucified as a result of historical forces or human choice, Jesus was crucified according to the direct plan of God, and this plan was a plan for our salvation.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  It is something we remind ourselves of at each Eucharist.  For example, in the ‘comfortable words’ we hear:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Or as our Easter card has it:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

The Cross was no accident, but a demonstration of God’s love for us, but without the resurrection, it would be a meaningless and empty gesture.  The resurrection, however, changes everything.  The One who died for us, now lives for us.  It is significant that the symbol of Christianity became not the empty tomb, but the Cross.

The Cross makes it possible for us to be forgiven, but more than that we can now have the life of Christ in us.  Today because of the resurrection we can see the Cross for what it is - not now a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory.  A place where we find forgiveness and peace.  An opportunity to put an end to our old life and in the power of Christ’s resurrection to begin a new one.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Lent 5

Romans 8:6-11

Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday.  In the modern lectionary, this term is reserved now for Palm Sunday, but the lectionary helpfully notes that today is the beginning of Passiontide, which is rather like wanting to have your lectionary cake and eat it!

Regardless of what we call it, today our thinking turns towards the Cross and Jesus’ passion, that is, his suffering.  Before, we do, however, our readings finish our Lenten preparations for it by finishing on a high note.  The Gospel gives us the Raising of Lazarus, which looks forward to our Lord’s own conquering of death.  Our Epistle, continuing the theme, speaks of the life that will be given to our mortal bodies by the Spirit. 

Our resurrection, however, is still in the future.  We can look forward to it with confidence, but in the meantime, we have to live out our lives here in our existing bodies in this world.  In our reading from Romans, St Paul gives us teaching on how this can be done. 

He writes that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  At least that is how it is translated in the version we use.  And certainly, St Paul would agree with the sentiment.  The point he is making however, is rather more basic.  What St Paul is talking about is not in the first place where we set our minds, but on the mindset of the flesh and the Spirit. 

The ‘mindset’ of the flesh is death and the ‘mindset’ of the Spirit is life and peace.  What St Paul is contrasting here are two completely different and opposed outlooks.  What St Paul wants us to understand is that the outlook of the flesh, that is, its values, attitudes, and priorities are death.  We are talking about world views and how we look at and approach life.  And the way that the ‘flesh’ does that results in death: not simply physical death when we die, but spiritual death that we experience even now and which continues beyond death.

There is amongst Christians at present a real anti-intellectualism.  This expresses itself in a variety of ways.  At its most basic, it expresses itself in a lack of interest in Christian teaching and Bible study.  Sermons have to be short and entertaining.  We don’t want to have to think for too long.  We are not very interested in doctrine and all that sort of thing.  We prefer messages that are simple and don’t require us to think too much. 

The problem is our minds do matter and if we don’t make an effort to control and use them, we will just find ourselves following the fashion and outlook of our day.  St Paul in Romans sees the corruption of our minds as the first consequence of our rejection of God.  He writes in Romans 1: 20-22:

‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’

Sin and all that comes with it is the result of our rejection of God and the corruption of our minds and thinking.  There are those, described in the media as the new atheists, who like to portray anyone believing in God as a fool, someone who is deluded.  The Psalmist said that on the contrary, it is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God.  It is those who reject God who are the fools not those of us who have faith. 

Once our thinking became futile so our behavior followed.  What we describe as sin stems from our corrupt minds.  But not just what we can all see and agree on as sin, but a way of living and behaving that centres on ourselves and what we can get out of life regardless of the consequences.

St Paul describes this way of living as living according to the flesh.  The ‘flesh’ in the New Testament can be a neutral term meaning simply to be human, but it can also take on a far more negative sense to mean human beings in rebellion against God and cut off from him.  It refers to way humans live when they no longer have God in their lives. 

St Paul writes in Galatians that the works of the flesh are obvious; the works of the flesh, however, are a consequence of us being in the flesh and living according to the flesh.  In other words, following its outlook and way of looking at the world.

In our reading this morning, St Paul tells us bluntly that those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  However, he continues: ‘but you are in the Spirit, you are not in the flesh.’  The Holy Spirit is given to us to enable us to see things from God’s point of view, to enable us to follow a different path with different values, attitude, and priorities.

St Paul again writes in Galatians that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  But, and here, St Paul would agree with the way our passage is translated, this is something we need to go on doing.  We need to consciously follow the outlook and mindset of the Spirit and reject that of the flesh. 

And that is easier said than done.  For the outlook of the Spirit is the outlook of the Cross.  It is by the Cross that we crucify the flesh, the Cross is also to be the basis for how we live.  Jesus tells us in the Gospels that we are to take up our crosses daily.  Our lives are to be characterized by the Cross.  We don’t simply wear the Cross as a symbol, we live it as our way of life. 

Adopting the Cross as our way of life would you might think be uncontroversial amongst Christians.  Surely both as a Church and as individuals this is something we can agree on?

If only.

In AD312 the future Emperor, Constantine, was about to fight his enemy for control of the Empire at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  Before it, he had a vision of a Cross and heard the words ‘in this sign conquer’.  He did and as a consequence made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.  Christianity went from being the faith of the weak and persecuted to that of the strong and powerful.

Christians today divide on whether this was a good or bad thing, but there can be little doubt that, as a result, the Church often found itself hopelessly compromised.  The fortunes of the Church became bound up in what happened on a social and political level.  The Church tried to influence the values of society, but society in turn and inevitably influenced the values of the Chruch.

It still does.  (This will be a subject for future sermons!)

However we view the relationship between the Church and the society in which we live, the call for Christians to develop a distinctive lifestyle based on the values of the Cross is one that we can and should all unite around.  We need to set our minds on the Spirit.  And this needs to begin with each one of us.

We need to ask ourselves in each and every area of our life what it means to take up our Cross.  It won’t necessarily mean the same actions for each of us, but it will mean the same attitudes.  For too long we have wanted to have all that comes from living in the flesh with all the promises that come from living in the Spirit.  The two, however, are incompatible.  The flesh and the Spirt are, as St Paul puts it, opposed to each other. 

The challenge then as we enter Passiontide is to assess our lives in the light of the Cross and commit ourselves to life in the Spirit.  It will mean death for the flesh and even the loss of many things we hold dear in this life, but it will bring true life and peace.

The way of the Cross is the way we are going to follow our Lord walking as we enter Passiontide.  May we ourselves walk it each day in our lives.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mothering Sunday (Lent 4)

Today is Mothering Sunday, which, as it happens coincides with Mother’s Day in the UK, but is distinct from it.  Mothering Sunday celebrates in the first place our mother Church and then our earthly mothers.  Today, then, is about ‘mothering’.  This weekend, as it happens, also celebrates the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is now 9 months to Christmas! 

The Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of our Lord is the supreme example of motherhood in the Bible.  God decided that when he was going to reveal himself fully to us human beings, he was going to do it by becoming one of us.  To do this, he was, as St Paul puts it: ‘born of a woman’ and for 30 years was nurtured and cared for by a woman.

You would think that this would of itself be sufficient to secure the Blessed Virgin Mary a place of respect and honour in the Church.  In fact, she became instead a highly controversial figure.  She remains controversial today although for different reasons depending on your particular perspective. 

We need to look a little at the history.  In the New Testament, there is not a lot about Mary.  This doesn’t in and of itself mean anything: there is very little about the doctrine of the Eucharist, but we know it was central to the worship of the Early Church. 

Mary herself was present at our Lord’s first miracle in Cana of Galilee, she was present at the Cross when he was crucified, and present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given.  In the years that followed, as the Church sought to express its faith and worship, Mary was given a prominent role of honour and respect.  In 431, the Council of Ephesus formally proclaimed her ‘Theotokos’: God-bearer.  Or, as it is more usually translated: Mother of God.  The Church meant by this that Jesus as the Divine Son of God came into the world by her.

During the years following, through what are known as the Middle Ages, devotion to Mary became an important part of Christian worship and religious practice. 

I have recently spoken about the European Reformation.  While the reformers all recognized Mary as ‘Theotokos’ and believed in the Virgin Birth.  They felt things had gone too far and that honour was being given to Mary that properly belonged to her Son.  In the same way that the Church divided over issues such as ‘justification by faith’ so to Christians divided over Mary.  These divisions are still with us.

In the years following the Reformation, Roman Catholics not only continued to reverence her, they accredited her with more formal titles all emphasizing the importance of her role in salvation.  There are, as a result, many feast days dedicated to her. 

Roman Catholics celebrate, for example, in addition to the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her enthronement as the Queen of Heaven.  She is recognized as herself a Mediator between her son and human beings.  Some would even describe her as ‘Co-redemptrix’, seeing her as playing a unique and essential role in our salvation.  Roman Catholics, at least officially, would reject any suggestion that they worship Mary or that, in honouring Mary, they are in any way dishonouring her son. 

It has to be said, however, that the impression is sometimes given that, whatever the official position of the Church may be, the reality for many is somewhat different and that Mary occupies a position in some people’s devotions that comes dangerously near to worship.

In more recent times, however, Mary has been subject to a new line of attack in addition to traditional Protestant rhetoric.  For many today, Mary is quite simply not the role model they want and certainly not one they want for women. 

Mary is regarded as representing a particular male view of the ideal woman: someone who is both mother and sexually pure.  Worse still, her words to the Angel Gabriel are considered to be a modern form of blasphemy: ‘let it be to me according to your word.’  Mary’s submission and apparent passivity is seen as a bad example to women who are being encouraged ‘to do it for themselves’ and who don’t need men or male permission to be the person they want to be. 

Instead, another Mary is championed, by both Christian and non-Christian alike, as a more appropriate role model for our age.  She is Mary Magdalene.  Mary Magdalene is seen as more independent, riskier, even sexier.  Admittedly, this is with the aid of some imagination and highly dubious interpretation of the Gospel records, but why let the facts spoil things?

So the Blessed Virgin Mary falls victim to Protestant fundamentalists and liberals alike.  She is no use to us.  Best then to consign her to history alongside other characters in the Gospel story that we pay little attention to.

I think this is both sad and a grave error.  After all, God did choose this young woman to be the mother of his Son and, for a long time, she was the biggest influence in his life.  One of our Lord’s last words on the Cross was to his Mother and to the disciple whom he loved: To his mother, he said: ‘Woman, behold your Son.’  And to the disciple: ‘Behold your mother.’

There isn’t time to try to unpack the significance of these words this morning, but Mary does have particular relevance for us today on Mothering Sunday.  (In what I am about to say I have no wish whatsoever to denigrate the role of fathers: but it is Mothering Sunday!)

God could have chosen many different ways to reveal himself to us.  The Letter to the Hebrews refers to the way God has spoken to us in the past, but now, he writes, he has spoken to us through a Son.  And to do this he entrusted himself to a young woman.  God not only had faith in Mary, he had faith in the value of an earthly mother.

Many here today are mothers.  It has always been a challenging role.  In the past, many women have died in childbirth.  Nowadays, thanks to medical technology, being a mother is for many, if not all, a choice.  But whereas in the past, the role was reasonably well-defined, it is so no longer.  Society gives many confusing messages as to what being a mother is all about.

Quite rightly a woman’s right to be treated equally in the workplace is increasingly recognized even if there is still a long way to go.  Nevertheless, with this has come, in some circles, a patronizing attitude to those women who choose not to focus exclusively on career, but to focus as well or instead on mothering.  I think the time has come in the Church for us to stop telling women what they must or must not do.  We are all different and what matters is that we each seek to offer ourselves, our personalities and gifts, to God. 

For some this will mean one set of choices, for others a different set.  But whichever choices women decide to make, what they deserve from the Church is support not criticism. 

One aspect of that support is to affirm the value of mothering, in whatever way a mother has decided to express it.  It is right that today we offer affirmation and encouragement to all who have embarked on this challenging and lifetime role. 

We need earthly mothers, but we do need spiritual mothering as well.  Often clergy will get asked: ‘Do I need to Church to be a Christian?’  Clergy are often evasive in their answer.  So, for the avoidance of any doubt: ‘Do I need to go to Church to be a Christian?  Yes – you do!’
Why?  Because that’s how God has decided it is going to be.

God provides us with earthly families and he provides us with spiritual families.  Christ Church is our spiritual family.  It is appropriate that our AGM should fall this year on Mothering Sunday.  It is a time to thank God for our mother Church: for Christ Church and for all who our part of her.

Finally, though, I want to return to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Not only does she remind us of the God given importance of mothers and our need for mothering, both physical and spiritual, she serves as a spiritual role model for both women and men.

Mary was the first disciple and her example provides us with an example of what it means to be a disciple.  It is no coincidence that our age should not like Mary’s words:  ‘Let it be to me according to your word’.

Self-fulfilment now is the order of the day and that is to be achieved by asserting our wills, demanding our rights, and doing what we want.  We celebrate the successful and powerful and despise the humble and meek.

Mary chose a different way.  She saw no greater path of fulfilment than doing what God wanted her to do.  Hers was a path of submission and sacrifice.  In the Temple, she was told that a sword would pierce her own heart also.  Being a mother is never easy, nor is being a disciple, but it is to this path that we are all called to today.

Mary realized that true fulfilment lies not in asserting our will, but submitting to God’s. The God who Mary knew was the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and who exalts the humble and meek. 

So today we thank God for our mothers and for our mother Church, and we ask him to help us to follow Mary along the path of submission and service.  We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, especially today as we seek to serve her Lord and ours:

Hail Mary full of Grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Lent 2

John 3:3

I am sure that many of you will have heard the phrase ‘born again Christian’.  I can remember sermons asking the question, ‘Are you born again?’  Many of these sermons were addressed to people who regularly attended Church and who certainly considered themselves Christian. 

The phrase itself came to represent a certain type of Christianity - a Christianity that saw itself opposed to what it believed was the formality and emptiness of established religion. 

I can only speak of the UK where I grew up, but I imagine it was true in other countries and places where the Church had been around for a period of time as well.  People went to Church for a variety of reasons not all of them, should we say, to do with God.  Often going to Church was little more than a middle class habit – something you did on a Sunday without necessarily having much clue about what went on.  Amongst many churchgoers – hard though it maybe to believe – talking about God outside of church was considered embarrassing and vulgar.  In the UK, the Anglican Church was often described as the Tory party at prayer – a description that certainly does not fit today in the UK at least.

In the same way that there was a challenge to traditional beliefs and values in society in the 1960s and the years following, so too within the Church there was a questioning of the status quo.  This came from 2 directions: firstly, from those who questioned the truth of traditional beliefs. (Bishop Robinson and his book ‘Honest to God’ are associated with those who took this position.)

Secondly, from the opposite direction, came those who held to and asserted the truth of traditional beliefs and values, but made the claim, startling to many Christians, Anglicans especially, that we should actually believe them and, what is more, experience them.  Christianity they argued wasn’t just for Sunday. 

Billy Graham was particularly associated with those who took this approach and he held mass rallies at which many came forward to accept Christ.  Many of those coming forward weren’t people who had never heard of Christ, but regular church-goers who were hearing of him in a new way.  Billy Graham wrote a book, ‘How to be Born Again’ which is still in print.
The phrase itself came from this morning’s reading and at long last it is to it that we now turn.  In John 3:3 Jesus says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’  Then in John 3:7: ‘Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born again.”’

Let’s turn to the passage:  Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover.  In John’s Gospel it is his first visit since his baptism by John the Baptist and just after his first miracle in Cana of Galilee.  He has already made quite an impression not least because he has engaged in an act of violence in the Temple: driving the merchants and money-changers from the Temple and pouring out their coins and over-turning their tables. 

People don’t quite know at this stage what to make of him.  And so a Pharisee named Nicodemus decides to find out for himself.  The Pharisees, we know: they were people dedicated to God’s Law.  This Pharisee, however, is also ‘a leader of the Jews’.  We know that he was also very rich!

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.  Some think that this means that he comes secretly, however that is unlikely.  In the first place opposition to Jesus hasn’t hardened at this stage and there is no reason why Nicodemus shouldn’t come.  And night time was a perfectly normal time to meet people after the day’s work. 

But it is significant that he comes ‘by night’ in the context of St John’s Gospel.  In St John’s Gospel night is symbolic of unbelief and darkness.  Nicodemus not only comes at night.  He himself is in the darkness.

This is illustrated by his response to what Jesus tells him, ‘How can these things be?’ he asks.  Jesus answers him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

What is it that he does not understand?  His conversation with Jesus began well enough.  He is an important man, but approaches Jesus respectfully:  ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.’  Jesus, however, dispenses with the niceties and says simply the words I have already quoted:  ‘Very truly, I tell you, no-one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.’

Or does he?  The Greek word can mean either ‘anew’ hence again, or ‘from above’.  Now Nicodemus responds, ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’  This suggests ‘again’ is the right understanding. 

But what Jesus goes on to say suggests that what he has in mind is not so much how many times you are born, but how you are born.  Now if you are born from above, you will be born anew or again, but the emphasis is on where the birth comes from.  And the birth Jesus has in mind is the birth of the Spirit:

‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8)

When Jesus says we must be born ‘from above’ or born anew or again.  What he is saying is that we must be born of the Spirit.  As far as Jesus is concerned this is fundamental:  you cannot be a Christian without being born ‘from above’.  When we are born as babies, we are born into the world as physical beings.  We now need to be born spiritually, not in some vague new age sense of the word, but born of God’s Spirit.  This is not an optional extra. 

The truth is that we all do come to Church for a variety of reasons, and let me say at once, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  I do believe that the Church is a place where people should be welcomed and feel at home.  But there has to be more to it than that.

It should, of course, be a place where having come to it, we join together to worship God.  We should have fellowship with one another.  Study the Bible and the Christian faith together and together seek to serve as we reach out to those in need. 

But even this is not enough.  The Church should be all these things, but as well as being a place where people worship God, it should be a place where they encounter God.  Where we see God’s Spirit at work.

Frankly, we can have excellent worship and fellowship, be a church known for giving and supporting those in need, we can be open and welcoming, but if people don’t meet God personally for themselves when they come to Church, then we are failing.

The Church, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, is to be a ‘spiritual maternity hospital’, a place where people can come to be born from above, that is, to be born spiritually.  The job of the clergy first and foremost is to act as a spiritual midwife to help people be ‘born from above.’  And then to help them to grow spiritually. 

But I would just say this in closing: every birth is different.  This is true in the physical world and it is true too in the spiritual world.  Very often, those who use the language of ‘being born again’ tend to suggest that it must be immediate and dramatic.  St Paul’s experience, for example, was like this.  But for others, labour is a protracted experience!  As it was for Nicodemus himself.

First, he came by night: he was questioning, but not understanding.  He was, at least, open to hearing what Jesus had to say for himself.

Secondly, then later, when his fellow Pharisees wanted to have Jesus killed, he questioned their right to do so (John 7: 45-52).  He was beginning openly to confront his doubt.

Thirdly, immediately after Jesus had been crucified, he went with Joseph of Arimithea, who is described as a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, to remove the body and bury it (John 19:38-39).  Nicodemus himself is described as the one ‘who had first come to Jesus by night’.  Now, however, he has stepped out of the darkness into the light of commitment.  A ‘leader of the Jews’ and a ‘secret disciple’ are the two to make sure Jesus is buried with dignity.

Nicodemus gives us an example as we seek to be ‘born from above’:
You may be interested in Jesus: ask questions!
You may be unsure: confront your doubts!
You may be on brink of a decision: make it!

We are born in this world to physical life, which is mortal and will end, but the birth from above is to spiritual life, which is eternal and will never end.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

‘What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’’ (John 3:6)

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sunday next before Lent

Matthew 17:1-9

Today is the Sunday before Lent and the theme of our service is the Transfiguration.  It is a well-known story: Jesus takes the three disciples who form his inner core, as it were, and leads them up a high mountain.  While up there, he is transfigured, changed, before them.  Two people: Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, who represent the Law and the Prophets, appear to them.  A voice comes from a bright cloud that has come over them announcing that Jesus is ‘my Son, the beloved.’

Understandably, the three disciples are both confused and afraid and, in their fear, they fall to the ground.  When Jesus speaks to them, they look up and there is no-one else with them.  On the way down the mountain, Jesus orders them to tell no-one what has happened until after he has been raised from the dead. 

In our second reading, St Peter writes: ‘We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ and then goes on to describe the experience related in the Gospels.

One of the key questions raised in all the four Gospels, and one our Lord asks his disciples directly, is: ‘Who do you think I am?’  That is, who do they think that Jesus is.  In some ways, it is a fairly obvious question.  He is ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.  Many of those Jesus ministered to would either have known him, or known his parents, when he was growing up.

This, after all, was the problem when he preached at his home town of Nazareth, they just couldn’t accept that this carpenter’s son was anything other than that.  They seem to have enjoyed his newly found celebrity status, what they couldn’t accept was Jesus’ implied claim to be more than this.  Jesus was claiming a significance that went far beyond mere fame.

The disciples had joined Jesus and followed him because they did believe in him and in his mission.  All the indications are that they believed him to be the promised Messiah, the one who would liberate and lead Israel to freedom.  He was obviously, a ‘charismatic figure’.  Here I am not primarily referring to the miracles he was believed to be able to perform, but to his character.

Jesus was one of those people who made an impression: everywhere he went, he created a stir.  It didn’t mean that everyone liked him or agreed with him - that is plainly not the case - but whatever they thought about him, they couldn’t ignore him.  The Pharisees, for example, found themselves constantly drawn to him despite his, at times, quite damning criticism of them.  The crowds too turned out in huge numbers to see and listen to him, even though it was far from clear that they understood a word he was saying.

Interestingly, Jesus seems to have had a particular affinity with women, and some of the most famous stories in the Gospels centre on his relationships with women.  Luke even tells us that it was rich women who financed his ministry.

His disciples were devoted to him.  We tend to focus on how they abandoned him at the end, but we need to remember that for three years they were prepared to sacrifice everything for him and were clearly aware of the threat to their own lives that this posed.  It was only because at the end he seemed to let them down that they abandoned him.  Intriguingly though, the women didn’t!

So the question now comes directly to us: ‘who do we think Jesus is?’  And it is not nearly so easy to answer as at first it might seem.

I am at present reading a book called, ‘Rediscovering Jesus’.  The authors suggest that most of our images of Jesus are composite ones drawn from a variety of sources.  We pick the passages we like from the four Gospels, throw in some verses from the letters of Paul, and then combine them with popular ideas about Jesus in the present.  The book is a challenge to rediscover Jesus as he is not as we have made him or would like him to be.

For example, if you were to try to find out about me, you might speak with Winnie, with my family in the UK, with friends who knew me growing up, with students I teach, or people I work with.  Each would tell a different story and each, I hope, would be reasonably accurate.  They would give an account of who I am from several different perspectives.  But if you then decided to select a story from Winnie, from my UK family, etc., you might well end up with a picture of someone who was rather different to the person I actually am.

What we often do with Jesus is exactly this.  And it is even worse because when it comes to Jesus we often select the stories and create the image based on a pre-determined outline of what we want the image to be either an outline of our own or of the culture we live in or both.

We come, then, to the Gospels with our outline and create a ‘pick and mix’ image of Jesus to fit it.
The image of Jesus currently being presented in our churches is very much, I believe, like this: a modern cultural creation.  It is one that completely fits the mood of our times, but you only get it by a very selective use of the Gospels.

We have created an image of Jesus that is very of the moment: someone that we would like to meet and have dinner with; someone who represents middle-class, liberal values; someone we wouldn’t even mind going on holiday with; someone that we are completely comfortable with.

And this should immediately alert us to the possibility that there is something intrinsically wrong with it.  For whatever else Jesus was, he wasn’t someone you could be comfortable with.  He was profoundly challenging and upsetting. Frankly, he must at times have been deeply annoying. Y ou would say something to him that you thought was positive and helpful and he would immediately correct you.  Or, as he did with Peter, tell you that that was the Devil speaking.  You would invite him for dinner and he would turn up with a prostitute.  You would honour him as your Lord and he would insist on washing your feet.  You would offer to follow him and he would tell you to give away all that you had first.

The image of Jesus that we have in many of our churches today is a reaction to the Jesus of the Church’s doctrine and worship in the past.  After his death and resurrection, the Church had to wrestle with the fact that they believed Jesus to be God incarnate, that is, God become human.  But what did that mean for their understanding of God?  For example, did it mean that there were two Gods or, if you included the Holy Spirit, three?  And what did it mean for their understanding of the person of Jesus himself?  For example, was he really human or did he only appear to be?

The answer that the Church came up with is summed up in the Creed we say at every Eucharist.  There is only one God, who exists in three persons all equal in divinity.  And Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine.

Understandably, however, in her teaching and worship the focus tended to be on his divine nature and status.

In the second half of the last century in particular, there was a reaction generally against dogma and tradition and, specifically, against the Church’s traditional image of Jesus. The demand was for a more human Jesus, a Jesus who was one of us, someone who was down to earth and accessible.

After several experiments, we have now settled on the image of Jesus which is generally presented and preached in many of our churches. Not the divine Jesus of the Church’s icons, but a very approachable and likeable Jesus: the inclusive, welcoming, and non-judgemental Jesus who is always there for us and accepts us - just as we are. We may now have a Jesus we are comfortable with and who ticks all our boxes, but quite why anyone would have wanted to crucify him is a bit of a mystery.

The reading this morning is a challenge to us to rethink our image of Jesus. This is something we will be attempting to do as we approach Easter. Ultimately, the test for whether we are on the right lines or not will be whether he is someone who it is uncomfortable to be with; someone that otherwise good, religious people would want to get rid of.  The image we have of Jesus has to be one that belongs nailed to a Cross.

The voice from heaven said of Jesus: ‘Listen to him!’  For Peter, James and John the transfiguration was not just about Jesus being transformed before them, it was challenge to them to allow their own ideas about Jesus to be transformed: to see Jesus for who he really is.

This Lent, may our image of Jesus too be transformed and changed as we rediscover Jesus for ourselves.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Third Sunday before Lent

In a recent sermon I mentioned that this is the 500th anniversary this year of the European Reformation.  On October 31, 1517 a monk in Germany by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the local church calling for an academic debate on them.  At least, that is how the story came to be told.

What is clear is that Luther’s challenge to the system of indulgences went ‘viral’.  Luther challenged the idea that the Pope had the authority or ability to release people from ‘purgatory’ so buying bits of paper in order to get friends and relatives released early was a complete waste of time and money.  Ultimately, the Reformation wasn’t about abstract theological ideas:  it was about authority. 

But behind the challenge to authority there were theological ideas and in the coming years, Luther was to spell them out.  These ideas, at least as far as Luther was concerned, were anything but abstract.  They came from intense personal experience.

Luther had been destined to become a lawyer.  This was what his father had planned for him.  (Some things don’t change!)  Then one day, on a journey, he was caught in a storm and feared for his life.  He promised St Anne that if she were to save him, he would become a monk.  He did live and he honoured his promise. 

Being a monk, however, did not make him happy.  He took the whole business seriously – some including his confessor – felt too seriously.  He wanted to please God, but never felt good enough or that he could do enough to please God.  When he came across the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’, it only served to remind him of how unrighteous he was. 

Then while preparing lectures on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God wasn’t about condemning sinners, but offering them the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins, freely, without having to do anything except have faith and trust in Christ. 

No need then for pilgrimages, confessions, religious acts and devotions, good works, penances and all the other things that were part of medieval religion.  The discovery changed his life and was to change Europe and the world. 

The doctrine of ‘justification by faith and not works’ was to become central to Protestantism.  This the Protestants believed was the message of the New Testament and the Bible.  ‘God forgave our sins in Jesus’ name’ - as we shall sing later in the service.  It is an amazing message and it has brought freedom and liberation to many.  It is celebrated in many of the hymns we sing, for example, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…’

Nowadays there is no argument over it.  What was once a source of division between Catholics and Protestants is so no longer.  If you were to put a Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican in a room and get them to discuss justification by faith, there would be little disagreement between them.  Indeed, I would argue that a radical version of justification by faith is the present message of all the churches.

What we preach is that Jesus is an inclusive, welcoming, forgiving, and accepting Saviour.  It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or what you have done, Jesus loves and welcomes and accepts you.  In some versions of the message, we drop the whole ‘Saviour forgiving sins’ bit.  Jesus is not the sort of person to condemn us for what we have done: after all, who is to say what is right or wrong?

Now I don’t want to spoil the party, and I like the idea that I don’t have to worry about what I have done as much as anyone.  Clearly, as Luther discovered, the New Testament does tell us that God forgives us our sins and that it is all about his grace made available to us through faith (we will talk more about this when we study Ephesians).

Luther discovered justification by faith while studying Romans.  The problem, however, is that while Romans undoubtedly teaches justification by faith, it also teaches judgment by works.  In Romans, God is a God who gets angry with sin and while he forgives those who turn to him by faith in Christ, he punishes those who fail to live as he requires.

Take, for example, this passage from chapter 2:

‘For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.’ (Romans 2:6-11)

It is perhaps not surprising that these verses, and others like them in Romans, cause huge problems for those seeking to write commentaries on the letter.  We know that human works do not count.  The trouble is that there are many passages in both Romans and the rest of the New Testament where it seems that they do. 

All of which brings us to this morning’s passage from 1 Corinthians 3.

You will remember that the Corinthians were dividing into the ancient equivalent of fan clubs around various Christian leaders.  In dealing with the problem, St Paul diplomatically avoids talking about St Peter and instead discusses himself and Apollos who is part of his circle.  He discusses their respective roles in ministering to the Corinthians.

St Paul says that he planted, that is he established the Church, while Apollos watered, that is help it to grow.  Each St Paul says will one day find their work judged and will be rewarded accordingly.  St Paul says that he has applied this teaching about our work being judged to himself and Apollos, but it is true for all of us.  As St Paul is to write subsequently to the Corinthians:

‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)

This is a message we prefer to ignore or to see as a minor part of the New Testament.  However, the idea that we will all be judged according to our works, that is, to how we have lived our lives is central, not peripheral, to our Lord’s teaching while he was on earth. 

It is a theme of many of his parables.  Yes, of course, we love the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the story who of the Father who reaches out to his lost son and accepts him back and forgives him despite everything he has done.  We take heart from the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go off in search of the one that is lost.

But what of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats where the Son of Man separates people into sheep and goats?  Each are judged on how they have lived with the sheep who represent the righteous inheriting eternal life, but the goats who represent those who have failed to live as our Lord expects being sent to eternal punishment.

How, in other words, are we to hold together justification by faith and judgement by works?

Obviously, we can’t decide this issue this morning.  What we can say is that we must hold them together.  While it is tempting to favour one at the expense of the other to do so is not to be true to the Word of God.  And while it’s easy to see why we prefer one to the other, that doesn’t make it right.

One of my favourite TV programmes is the BBC programme, Dr Who.  I particularly like the present incarnation of the Doctor who is played by the actor Peter Cipaldi.  He is the oldest actor to play Dr Who and as grey hair.  You may be able to guess why such a representation might appeal to me!

One of the most famous quotes of the Doctor is:

‘We are all stories in the end.  Just make it a good one’.

All good stories have their ups and downs, high and low points, happy times and sad.  ‘Justification by faith’ reassures us that when we make a mess of things, when we fail and screw up, that God will forgive us and that his approval and love of us is not based on our works.  We won’t in other words be judged on the individual chapters, we will, however, be judged and that ought to encourage us to take seriously how we live and what our priorities in life are.

What will be our story?

One of my favourite prayers comes from an Anglican funeral service:

Lord, give us grace to use aright
the time that is left to us here on earth. 
Lead us to repent of our sins,
the evil we have done and the good we have not done;
and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son,
in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fourth Sunday before Lent

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

One of the most difficult tasks in studying the New Testament is dating it.  We know broadly speaking when the events it describes took place, but precision eludes us.  One of the few precise dates, however, relates to the Church that St Paul wrote to in this morning’s second reading: the Church at Corinth. 

St Paul had come to Corinth to escape attempts on his life.  He, Silvanus, and Timothy, following what they believed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, had travelled from Syria to Europe.  There they had preached the Gospel in a number of places, including Philippi and Thessalonica to which St Paul would subsequently write letters.  In both places, they encountered not only resistance, but even violent opposition.  This violence was focused primarily on the person of St Paul himself.  One of the interesting features of St Luke’s account of St Paul’s mission is how St Paul is the one that everyone seems to hate.  For example, St Paul was able to leave Timothy and Silvanus in Macedonia while he himself had to flee for his life first to Athens and then to Corinth. 

At Corinth, however, things took a turn for the better.  For the first time in Luke’s account of St Paul’s missionary journeys, St Paul is able to stay in one place.  We are told that he was in Corinth for about 18 months. 

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t opposition:  just that it wasn’t as violent or intense as that he had encountered in Thessalonica or would encounter in Ephesus.  Such opposition as there was came to a head when one Gallio became the pro-Consul.  And this brings us back to dates.  We know that Gallio became the pro-Consul in AD 51. 

His appointment gave the Jews in Corinth an opportunity to attack St Paul.  They complained about St Paul formally to the pro-Consul.  Gallio, however, dismissed their complaint as having no basis in Roman Law.  Gallio seems to have thought it just an internal dispute amongst Jews concerning the intricacies of the Jewish religion.  This meant that the Church could continue largely unhindered.  It also meant that the Church could enjoy for the time being the same privileges as was granted under Roman Law to other Jewish groups.

Good news!  Well, yes and no.  Clearly the Church at Corinth grew and prospered.  As I have said previously, it seems to have been so successful that is attracted the stars of the first century Church.  St Paul describes the Church as lacking no spiritual gift, and he is clearly proud (if that’s the right word) of all he had been able to achieve in Corinth. 

The downside of this, however, seems to have been that success went to the Corinthians’ heads.  They were flattered by the attention they received from the celebrities of the early Church so much so that they divided into fan clubs based on the preacher they liked the most.  They were only too aware of their gifts and achievements. 

They were able to take this approach to the Christian life precisely because they didn’t have to face the sort of opposition that Churches such as Thessalonica had to face.  St Paul writes contrasting how he and his co-workers were treated compared to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use these words exactly, but it is clear that he thought they had it easy.

From what St Paul writes, the picture we get of the Church at Corinth is of a Church that is growing numerically, that is successful and strong spiritually, and has no problems when it comes to money.  It is in every way the model of a Church that seems to be getting it right.  And this success was due in no small measure to St Paul’s extended ministry there.  Nowadays, a book would be written or a course devised to teach other churches how to emulate the Corinthians’ success.  St Paul had every right to be proud of what he had achieved. 

Except that is not how St Paul himself saw it.  St Paul is scathing in what he has to say about the Corinthians’ attitude and outlook.  Firstly, be couldn’t care less about their numerical success.  Numbers in and of themselves simply do not matter.  If they are wrong, it just means that more are wrong.  Secondly, he deplores the Corinthians sense of their own worth and achievement.  The Corinthians were outwardly successful and they knew it and were proud of it.  And this pride in their achievement lead them into many difficulties.  It was the root cause of their divisions and behind most of the problems they faced.  It lead them into immoral behavior and theological error. 

So in 1 Corinthians, St Paul is having to do two things.  He is having to tackle the specific problems in the Christian community at Corinth:  problems to do with division, sexual immorality, social involvement, spiritual gifts, and theological beliefs.  But he is also trying to tackle the underlying causes of these problems.  And this he believes is to do with a wrong view of the Christian faith. 

The Corinthians were into success and achievement.  St Paul believed the Gospel was about loss and failure.  He writes that when he was with the Corinthians he had determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  This was certainly not a formula for success.  St Paul himself tells us that the Jews thought such an idea impossible: a stumbling-block.  How could the Christ, the Messiah, suffer such an ignominious death?  By definition, the Messiah should be an all-conquering hero, not a humiliated, defeated victim.  And the Greeks just thought the idea stupid: foolishness.  Crucifixion was the ultimate scandal; a death that was too shameful to even speak of. 

Our Lord’s death was on the Cross, but all his life was modelled on it.  And it was what he demanded of his followers.  They were to take up their cross daily.  The life of a disciple was to be one of service and sacrifice.  Jesus’ last act before his betrayal and crucifixion was to wash his disciples’ feet.  An act, he said, that was to be an example to them of how they should live as his followers. 

This is an extremely difficult message.  More than ever, we live in a success based society.  We are judged by our attainments, by our exam passes, our degrees, our job status, the brands we can afford, where we live, how well we are doing in life.  This inevitably affects how we evaluate our success or failure as a Church. 

I regularly attend a meeting of representatives of a number of churches during which we share how things are going in our respective churches.  The stories tell of success: new buildings, increased attendance at services, sound finances.

In other words, the exact same criteria is being used to judge how the church is doing as would be used to judge the success or failure of a company.  It is not that there is anything wrong necessarily with all these things, it is just that I rather suspect that if things weren’t so good, we wouldn’t get to hear about them.  The pressure to tell a success story is simply too great.

When I first started preaching, I used to go to various Methodist churches in the area where I lived.  These were small numerically, elderly, and struggling to survive.  The good thing about this, however, is that I was never under any illusion about what ministry was about.  Yes, you do get your superstars, but most ministers will never be one.  Sadly, that can lead to a feeling of failure and defeat. 

I realize that there is also another danger here.  In rejecting the world’s standards for evaluating success, we can use the Gospel of Christ crucified to justify our lack of effectiveness.  St Paul certainly criticized the Corinthians for their arrogance and self-satisfaction.  He stressed that the Lord we serve was a failure by human standards.  But he also praised those churches that were successful by divine standards: that is these churches who preached Christ crucified and which lived sacrificial lives of service. 

In other words, what matters, as far as God is concerned, is not whether we are a success or failure by human standards, but whether we are faithful.  And being faithful is solely about whether we model ourselves on the one who was humiliated and crucified.  This is not easy and at times it can be painful, but it is what we are all called to as Christians.

May God grant that we may know only Christ and him crucified and seek to follow him daily in our lives.