The Great Commission

This is the final Sunday of our Holy Habits year and again I’ve been given instruction as to the topic I should be preaching on. John wants me to focus on the Great Commission,

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

I’ve been asked more specifically to focus on the word “Go”. The whole point of the Holy Habits programme is to explore what the early church was doing at a time of rapid growth and reflect on what we can learn form this at a time when the church, in Western Europe at least, is declining. The only surviving history of the very early church is that recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and it is very clear from that book that the disciples travelled across the Eastern Mediterranean with the primary intention of fulfilling that Commission. Although there are records that they healed, cast out demons, forgave sins it is clear that the primary purpose of those early journeys was to make disciples.

There can be no doubt that they were successful. The impression is of churches starting off slowly, Paul refers in his letters to individual by name and it is clear that they met primarily in each others’ homes. The groups grew in numbers and influence however. By the mid 60s AD the Christian community in Rome was sufficiently large and influential for Nero to feel a necessity to order a programme of state persecution (during which Paul is thought to have died). That and the wider community continued to grow both in numbers and influence. It was accepted as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 and became the state religion in 380. This is quite amazing growth for a movement that had burst into life only after its leader had been executed as a criminal.

Since then the history of the church, in global terms, has been one of growth. Sometimes this has been driven by the pure evangelistic power of the gospel message at other times by cultural, political and economic factors which had very little to do with that message. There’s no doubt for example that emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity was largely because he thought that having God on his side would give him a major advantage in his extensive military campaigns. For whatever reasons, whether good or bad the history of Christianity has undoubtedly been one of growth and, on an international scale that story of growth is continuing today.

… but not now in Western Europe. Data from the 2011 census shows that the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped by about 12% over ten years. If you’ve picked up the “Conference Business Digest” from the table outside the worship area over the last couple of weeks you will have read that membership of the Methodist Church has dropped by 3.5% a year over the last decade. Since we arrived in this circuit, seven years ago, two churches have closed and none of the remaining 5 are showing any signs of significant growth

So what can we do about this? I haven’t got time in one morning to analyse what makes effective mission so I’m going to stick to the simplest possible recommendation that is that we need to “go” and make disciples. I think the fundamental assumption of most mainline British churches is that we can “stay” and make disciples. We tend to assume that what we need to do is make the church more attractive and then people will come to us. The early church didn’t spend its energies re-arranging the furniture within the worship area, or changing the songs it sang or upgrading the signage outside its buildings (it didn’t have any). It put its energy into travelling across the known world and proclaiming the gospel.

Perhaps more importantly when the early Christian missionaries, particularly Paul, arrived in a new community they adapted their message for that community. “To the Jews, I become a Jew, to win Jews. To those not under the law I become like one not under the law to win those not having the law.” The message from the early church is clear. If we want the early church to grow we must go to new communities and adapt what we say to make it relevant to them. The emphasis is on adapting what we have to what they need, not on assuming that we can change them so that they need what we already have.

So far this is following pretty much in the steps of what John talked about in his sermon at beginning of this theme. After that service, however, I was having a chat with Ray and he commented, “You know what the elephant in the room is, the elephant in the room is that we, as a congregation, are too old”. Mission of the kind I’ve been describing takes energy. The apostles going on all those journeys were young men filled with energy. We are not, as a congregation, young and energetic. Many of us have put a lifetime of service into the church and have now reached a time in our life when we want someone else to take over.

But society has changed, working patterns have changed, employers expectations have changed. The generation that could be taking over have no energy for mission because they are expected to pour their energy into different things. Anyone with a professional career in the modern world has to work long hours to develop that career and maintain it and, of course, it is those people who have most to offer to in leading the world outside the church who have most to offer in terms of leadership within it.

For a variety of reasons, in most couples of employment age both partners now work. Their surplus energy is ploughed into the tasks of keeping the household running and family relationships healthy. That energy is not available for mission activity of the church.

So it’s all very well to talk about the necessity for mission and for us to go into the world and make disciples but who is going to do this?

Here, as on so many issues that we have addressed this year, it might be useful to look to the experience of the early church. For all that the Book of Acts is dominated by accounts of heroic missionary endeavours, it is clear that only a relatively small number of individuals were involved in this aspect of ministry. It is clear from what we read in the letters that most of the early Christian community stayed at home. Maybe mission should be seen as the responsibility of a small number of people who are particularly suited to it than a broader responsibility shared amongst all of us. If we reflect on the Great Commission literally, it is perhaps useful to recognise that it was given to a very select group of individuals (Jesus’s Disciples). There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason to generalise this and take it as an obligation on us all.

I’ve changed career. Friday was my last day working for the University. On Sunday next week I start a new role as a Lay Pastor at Bramhall Methodist Church. As with all life decisions it has been driven by a complex web of interacting factors but one of those has been that I’ve been one of those people in a modern professional role who hasn’t had the energy to engage in mission for the church. It’s partly about time, but it’s much more about having the headspace. If I’m struggling with the demands of a leadership role in a large modern corporation, whether it be a university, school, hospital, or company, I simply haven’t got the emotional energy to do so for the Church as well.

By supporting the Lay Pastor role, the congregation at Bramhall are offering an opportunity for me to step aside from my career (possibly for just a few years, possibly for longer) and focus on how I would like to express my faith. Although the job title is Lay Pastor, the one phrase in the person specification for that post that really really caught my imagination is for someone with a “heart to work with people at the margins of church life”. It is essentially an invitation for someone to engage in mission within their community.

So is this the future? Do ageing congregations, and Bramhall has its fair share of ageing members, need to think less of engaging in mission themselves and more in making opportunities available for others to do so with their blessing?   How many other people are out there like me who would love an opportunity to refocus their lives either for a defined period of permanently? Perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps an employee’s energy can be used to direct the mission and set out a vision. Perhaps once this has been established it might be easier for others to commit to their time and what reserves of energy remain to share in the realisation of that vision.

We also need to think more imaginatively about how we use resources. A time of closing churches is also a time of opportunity? Selling churches frees up capital making it available for other uses. This circuit has sold one church recently and is in the process of selling another. Those funds are being held for future mission activity. Perhaps we need to engage with more urgency in a discussion about what that activity should be. Perhaps we could use that money to create an opportunity for someone to engage in mission within this community. The money is lodged in the circuit rather than this church but let’s start a conversation about how it is going to be used. Doing so now while we still have a church to act as a base for this must be better than waiting for ten years until it is too late.

We are also in the process of looking for a new minister. What should his or her priorities be? I’m sure that there will be an initial assumption that we are looking for someone to minister to us and look after our needs. On reflection though I think we are very good at looking after our own needs. We have very strong formal and informal networks of support within our congregation. Maybe we could look to the future and say that we will take responsibility for our own pastoral needs and free up the time of the new minister to engage in mission within the local community. Maybe we could look for someone who could spend two days a week ministering to a local school, or to people in this commuter suburb who suffer from work-related stress, or to the incoming families to the new housing estate in Woodford. Again this is a circuit rather than congregational decision but if we want to change someone is going to have to initiate that discussion.

This needn’t be only outward looking. There is currently a rather small pool of ministers within the Methodist church and a large number of churches from which to choose. If you are a dynamic forward looking minister are you going to want to focus on the internal needs of an ageing congregation – or would you relish the opportunity to be blessed to engage in mission to the community within which they are situated? How we view our future may well have an important influence on the type of minister who might be attracted to come here, or indeed whether anyone wants to come at all.

This isn’t just a personal vision. It mirrors the path that the Methodist church as a whole is starting to journey along. Conference this year adopted a motion that every church council be encouraged to address and answer the question “do you have a growth plan or an end of life plan”. The starkness of this choice takes the breath away but once we have got over the initial shock we recognise that it is real. If we don’t grow we will die. I don’t know how long that “encouragement” will take to filter through but maybe we could start now and get ahead of the game. Are we, as a congregation and circuit, going to develop a growth plan or an end of life plan?

 

 

 

The Newer Testament

Introduction to the theme

We are following a programme called Holy Habits over the course of this year. The programme studies 10 aspects of life in the early church. The early years of the church were characterised spiritual renewal, incredible dynamism and above all growth. These appear to be lacking in contemporary Western Christianity and the the hope is that by recapturing some of the habits of the early church we may also to be able to reinvigorate ourselves with some of that dynamism. We are asked to study how the early church lived and contrast it with how we live today. If what we do differs form what the early church did then we are invited whether there is a better way for us to live now. This month we have been thinking about scripture in this context. Did the early church relate to scripture in a different way to how we do today?

The answer is an answer of two halves – the Old Testament and the New Testament. As far as I can see the attitude of the early church to the Old Testament is very similar to ours today. They saw it as a sacred document that had been written in the past collating a wide range of literature that was regarded as the primary record of how their ancestors had experienced God. The relationship with the New Testament was entirely different to ours. Put most succinctly – while we read the New Testament the early church wrote it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage preaching in the fifth of this series of services as for one reason or another I’ve not been present for any of the previous four. I’m not sure what the other preachers have covered but I assume that there has been some reflection on how the Bible was written. There have been considerable advances in our understanding of this in theological colleges over the last fifty years, and it sometimes surprises me how little of this understanding has been passed on to congregations. At least some of it is finally filtering through. To recap:

No one set out to write the New Testament – in a sense it just happened. It is a collection of letters of early church leaders, accounts of activities of both Jesus (the Gospels) and the leaders of the early church (Acts) and a book of apocalyptic poetry (Revelation).

What we know of how the Bible was written is largely inspired guesswork. While there is general agreement amongst biblical scholars on the general principles,very little of the detail is known for certain and different scholars, at times, hold quite radically different views about those details.

There is general agreement that the letters (particularly those attributed to Paul) were the first documents to be written. We can guess the dates of these by correlating what is written with the stories of Paul’s journey’s in Acts. First Thessalonians may have been the first to be written but was still written about 20 years after Jesus’ death. The other letters from Paul were probably written over the ensuing 10 to 15 years. As I’ve said they were not written in order to become part of the Bible they were written in a particular context generally to support the growth of churches Paul had established and then moved on from. they are a mix of thanks and encouragement for the good things that Paul has heard about their acts and chastisement for the bad things.

It looks as if stories about Jesus’ life circulated in the early church by world of mouth and were only collated into what we now know as the gospels much later on. Mark is regarded as the earliest but appears to make references to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple so cannot have been committed to paper (or papyrus) before 70 AD. The others probably followed in later decades. Recent scholarship shows how many of the stories we read as prose today where written as quite exquisite poetry and have obviously been amended and polished as part of this process but nobody knows when or by who.

The other letters in the Bible (Peter, John, James and several others) were written later. 2nd Peter which may have been written as late as 120AD. Somewhere in the middle of this the Book of Revelation, which is quite different to anything else in the New Testament was written. Acts of the Apostles was also added as a history of the early church after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The other thing that modern scholarship has taught us is that what we know as the New Testament is just a small selection of documents that were revered by the early church. We now know of the existence of over 50 Gospels including a gospel of Thomas and of Mary. There were also many other letters including a third letter of the Corinthians, a letter form the Corinthians and letters of later church leaders such as St Clement. There were other records of miracle stories and other apocalyptic visions.

There was quite a long period where different churches in different regions revered different texts. It was probably sometime in the 3rd century that a consensus began to emerge on which of these were most important but it was not until 367 that we have the first record of the 27 books we accept today. It was until after the reformation that an official list was declared.

So there you are the Bible is now closed. It is not particularly clear when it was closed but it was an awful long time ago. What I want to explore this morning is what  Christianity would be like today if the Bible had not been closed, if we had continued to add to it, if we were still adding to it today. If we are to live as the early church lived, as our Holy Habits programme would suggest, then we should be continuing to write scripture. Let’s assume that as well as an Old Testament and a New Testament that there was also a Newer Testament then what would we include within it?

Following the early church it would be made of a variety of documents. None of the books of the Bible were written with the intention of becoming the Bible so we need documents that have been written for other purposes. We need to scavenge around for documents from a range of sources which we believe inspire, encourage of correct us. It’s clear that only a small number of people actually wrote these documents so we should perhaps be looking for pieces that other people have written. The Bible includes history,. poetry, religious songs, letters, visions and prophesy (at least) so we should look for literature of range of different types. At the time the early church was living the only option to record anything was to write it down but now we could include music or video or pictures of works of art. Above all we wouldn’t put it in a book would we we’d put it on the Internet. This opens up a wonderful possibility of the Newer Testament changing over time to reflect the world we live in. New material would continue to be added and older material, if it was felt to be losing relevance could be deleted.

Following the early church we would collate a wide range of articles that appealed to a wide range of people. Having done this, however, we would sift through this as a group to select the items that spoke most powerfully to the Christian community as a whole.

Have a think. Reflect on what you have read over the last couple of years, or heard on the television or he radio, or seen in an art gallery or stumbled across on the Internet. Of all that rich experience, which items would you propose for the Newer Testament. Do more than think, e-mail me your ideas and I’ll collate the suggestions for the Church web-site. If you are savvy with a computer then cut and paste links and send them to me. If you are not then leave a message on my answering machine and I’ll pop around and make a copy of what you have to offer. Try and keep things recent and I suggest limiting passages to something that can be read in three or four minutes at most. Other than that break free -there are no rules – there don’t appear to have been any particular rules in the early church.

To get you started here is a piece I would include. It is a video from Meg Cannon a young Christian woman telling the story of an even younger African girl. To me it merges the telling of a story as in one of the gospels or Old Testament history with the sense of inspiration and urgency that we find in many of Paul’s letters.

Hymn

Enemy of Apathy is one of the range of modern hymns that I would add to the Newer Testament. You can here a clip of it at this link (though I’m not sure how legit this is).

Readings

Rather than select two Bible readings I’ve chosen an excerpt from the Pope’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 (full text here) which is another document I might submit for the Newer Testament.

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology”, is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity. Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good.

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste”.

and the second reading is an example of something that is written in the Bible but I believe requires very cautious interpretation in the modern world:

2: 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 35.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Sermon

I think everything I talked about earlier in the service, the history of how the Bible was written by the early church, is pretty much accepted by most theologians. There may still be debate about details but generally speaking we now have a reasonable picture of how the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was written. It was written by a variety of people writing for a variety of different purposes, but none of them, as far as we know, was intending to write a book of the Bible.

If the Church, or at least its theologians, has come to accept this view, however, I’m not convinced that it has yet faced up to the implications. For most of the life of the Church there has been an assumption that the Bible is the infallible word of God – a belief that every word that has been written in the Bible must take equal weight and that the messages its conveys are valid for all time. Our current understanding of how the Bible was written must challenge that view. The Bible may be inspired by God (as the Bible itself claims in the 2nd letter to Timothy) but it was written by men (and we should note is was written by men, there is no evidence of any female involvement in the writing of any of the books of the Bible). It was written by men who were struggling to come to terms with how God was manifested in their lives. It had its origins in the memories of disciples who had lived through the pain of the Jesus’ execution, who had experienced something completely beyond their understanding in the resurrection, and were now inspired and emboldened by a new power in their lives. They were struggling to understand what all this meant and the writings that now form the New Testament are the record of that struggle. When we read what they wrote we have to read it with this understanding of how it was written.

We also need to remember that these men were products of their time. They had a very different worldview to the one we have today. Paul was brought up a strict Jew and trained as a Rabbi. He had only ever experienced worship in which the men stood at the front and worshipped and the women stood at the back and watched. Paul had clearly never met a woman like Meg Cannon, a women with uncovered hair and a message as powerful as that of any man. Similarly, the early church just assumed that slavery was a part of the natural order. When Paul instructed a runaway slave to return to his master in Philemon it was because he could not conceive of the world being any other way. Going further it is virtually certain that Paul had never met a gay or lesbian person in a committed, faithful and loving relationship. The only homosexual practices he had any knowledge of where those of the e prostitutes in a variety of pagan temples in the ports around the Eastern Mediterranean.

We also need to read the Gospels with an understanding of who wrote them and when. They were written by men who didn’t distinguish between religious poetry and fact-based journalism in the way we do today. If we are concerned that we are moving in the current world into a post-factual era we should remember that the New Testament was written in a pre-factual era. The Gospels were also written by men who had no understanding whatsoever that the way the world behaves is governed by the immutable laws of physics, chemistry and biology. They lived in a society in which people were far more willing to believe in a miraculous happenings and supernatural explanations than we are today. Their purpose wasn’t to write historically and scientifically verifiable journalism, it was to embed the truth of their lived religious experiences in the words that would best convey this to their contemporaries.

I don’t see that any of this would be a problem if the Bible had remained open (as far as writing is concerned) but it didn’t, it was closed in  practical sense about 150 years after Jesus’ death. It means that the only scripture we acknowledge today was written by people with very different world-views to ours.

The way the church has got around this over the years is to invent theology. This means that we read one thing in the Bible and then we interpret in the light both of our understanding of how the Bible was written and of our knowledge from other spheres. Thus although the Bible remains constant and unchanging how we interpret it has developed considerably over time.

For centuries references to slavery within the Old Testament and Paul’s letter to Philemon reinforced the general view that slavery was an inevitable consequence of how society was structured. It wasn’t really until the Enlightenment and the emergence of the concept of the human rights of all individuals that this began to be questioned. As with many societal changes, the church was quite slow to respond but eventually Christians came to realise that slavery is an abomination in the eyes of God and to campaign for its abolition. No one in today’s church would follow Paul in advising an escaped slave to return to his master.

Attitudes to women within society have changed and the churches theology has followed. We now recognise that Paul wrote at a particular time, in a particular context and from a particular background. Very few people within our denomination are now prepared to take what he wrote in Corinthians at face value and it continues to be a source of considerable pain that our Carholic brothers and sisters (and to a lesser extent the Anglicans as well) continue to struggle with these passages.

So how do we deal with these issues? At one level the sensible approach is to continue what the church has always done and develop a theological framework through which we can interpret the Bible in the light of our current worldview. I’m not however, convinced that this is enough. It satisfies us within the church, but it is extremely confusing to those outside the Church. They see us revering the Bible as the word of God and then choosing to reinterpret those sections that we don’t like. although some people do,  I would be extremely unwilling to give a non-Christian a Bible and just leave them to read it. Whilst we do hear some stories of people doing this and individuals coming to faith I’m sure that a much more common response, in the modern world, is for people to be put-off by what they find written in its pages. Imagine giving a Bible to a non-Christian woman and her opening at random to read the words of Paul we have heard read out this morning.

So is there an alternative. I think there is, or rather that there are things we can do as well. What we can do, as well as revering the Bible, is to revere contemporary writings and video and music and art that speaks to us of our ongoing relationship with God. I think we should revere videos like those produced by Meg Cannon, I think we should revere the rich variety of modern Christian songs whether they be from the Iona Community or the Rend Collective, I think we should revere the speeches that made by our leaders to make take the Christian message to the contemporary world.

So this morning I encourage you all to think about what you think we should revere in the contemporary world. Which writings and songs and art works speak most powerfully to you of your relationship with God? The idea of collating this material on a web-site is of course a bit of a gimmick, but I hope that it is the sort of gimmick that will get you thinking and change the way you look at the world.

John saw Christ as the Word. Let’s see the Word of God not as something that was entombed within the Bible 2,000 years ago but as the living Word unleashed through the Resurrection to speak to all people for all time.

Harvest hymn

Our church band has a limited repertoire of music which has created a challenge to write new words to old tunes. This hymn was written to the tune Cwm Rhondda (Guide me O, though great Jehovah) for our recent harvest festival. It was inspired by a sermon preached by a friend a couple of weeks earlier about the need to cherish the food we eat and remain appreciative of where it came from. It is a little edgier than I thought it would be when I set out to write it (but not quite as edgy as the first draft which my wife thought it would be wise to revise!).

We give thanks for food and drink this harvest,
conscious of our luck and wealth.
Help us to consume in moderation,
only what we need for health.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

On a green but threatened little planet,
we know what we need to do,
Care for soil and atmosphere and water,
farm to grow and to renew.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

Animals are mass produced for slaughter,
often treated with disdain.
Can this be the way that you intended
when you made them our domain?
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

We rely on agro-economics,
to supply the food we need.
Help us not forget the end-producer
enslaved by our blinkered greed.
May we cherish, May we cherish,
All the food we have to eat, all the food we have to eat

If we chose to banish wasteful habits
we could eat with food to spare,
Bread of heaven and crystal fountains,
Heaven on earth for all to share.
Bread of heaven, Bread of Heaven.
Feed me now and evermore, feed me now and ever more.

Eating Together

Our Church has adopted the Holy Habits programme  for this year and will be looking at one of the ten themes each month. This month the theme is Eating Together and all preachers have been asked to follow the theme.

holy-habits

This sermon is based around the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) and also draws on the story of Abraham’s hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). It was preceded by the worship song Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you and followed by another Walls, mark out boundaries, both of which I learned whilst living in Australia.

Out theme for this month has been “Eating together” and so far the focus has been on eating and on food. This morning I’d like us to focus on the “together” bit. Who, as Christians, should we be eating together with?

Earlier on a retold the parable of the Great Banquet. At face value that parable is about food, about who to invite to a feast. Except of course it isn’t really is it? It’s allegorical – an extended metaphor. The story isn’t really about a banquet, it is about the Kingdom of God. It’s not really about the rich man’s friends, it’s about a religious establishment that pays lip service to God love but then ignores him  when he challenges them to take action.  It’s not really about the poor and starving town’s people, it’s about those who are seen as outside the religious establishment but truly understand what it would be like to be loved by God, people who have never been invited to share that love in terms that are meaningful to them.

The older I get the more and more important I consider this parable to be. I have no memory of it being given any particular emphasis in my earlier experiences of faith. I can remember being taught about the parables of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Sheep, or the Good Samaritan. I remember being taught about the miracles and healing acts of Jesus, but I don’t remember this particular parable making any particular impact on me until my time in Australia. There it was foundational to the ministry of the Uniting Church minister who happened to be at the church that we joined. I don’t remember him preaching about it specifically, but I do remember the two songs that we sang on many occasions – the one we sung earlier and the other that we will sing after this sermon. Since that experience this parable has shot up the league table of important passages within the Bible in my mind and now maintains a place pretty near the top.

Its power, as in so many of the parables, comes from its allegorical nature. As I’ve said it is not really a story about food. It is about how we view religion. In Jesus’ day religion was defined by the observance of a number of religious practices – only eating certain foods, washing yourself in a particular way before eating, saying prayers at a particular time in a particular way. Those who observed these rules saw themselves as righteous and assumed they would inherit the Kingdom of God. When a group starts to identify itself as righteous, of course, it will automatically start to identify everyone else as unrighteous and this is what had happened by the time Jesus came along.

But of course we are often guilty of this ourselves both superficially and at a much deeper level. We tend to assume that the church is composed of that group of people that want to come to church for an hour on Sunday mornings and sing hymns and say prayers and drink cups of tea or coffee afterwards don’t we? If people don’t want to do that then we’re at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them aren’t we? What would you do with someone who said I want to learn how to love Jesus but I’m not particularly keen on singing hymns or sitting still?

At a deeper level protestant theology is rooted in the division of people into those who have been saved and those who haven’t. More aggressive Protestants tend to assume that it is obvious which is which, more generous ones may admit that this may not be so clear. But most of us here, deep within our religious psyche, hold to an assumption that God’s salvation is restricted to a certain number of people. Many of us can be rather lazy and put these two concepts together and assume that the saved are those that want to come to church and sing hymns and share a cup of tea afterwards. If we are even lazier we extend this to the assumption that those who do not want to live like this are the unsaved.

When we read the story of the Great Banquet and remember the context in which it was told then we often appreciate the absurdity of how those within Judaism in Jesus day viewed the world. What’s really important though, and what makes this story so relevant to the modern world, is that it should also alert us to what is absurd in how we view the world. It tells us that we need a broader view than we have at present of where value lies in this world. We need to move away from the assumption that all that God values in the world is tied up in the church and those who choose to attend. We need to open ourselves to the truth that there is much of value within this world that lies outside these doors, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the issues that came up in our house group the other day was that of how we relate to the spouses and families of many of our church members who choose not to come to church themselves. Maybe a theology that seeks out the good in anyone, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, provides a basis for such a ministry. How this works out practically isn’t clear in my mind but maybe just thinking in this way might open doors.

Going back to our Bible story though we may get clues. Jesus clearly spent considerable time eating with this disciples, he also spent considerable time eating with other people as well. The context of this story is a meal at a prominent pharisee’s house. Jesus has chosen to dine with someone with whom he disagrees quite fundamentally. Not only this, but we are told explicitly that Jesus was being “carefully watched”. He has chosen to dine with someone who is suspicious of him, who is spying on him, who may be plotting against him. The first lesson we can learn from this story is that when we talk about eating together we need to think about eating together with others as well as eating together amongst ourselves. The heavenly banquet is laid out for all people, not just for us; however we choose to define “us”.

But Jesus goes further than this he chooses not only to dine with others but to talk seriously with them about things that matter. He goes into a potentially hostile situation and presents his vision of the world. We’ve got a convention in Britain haven’t we that at a dinner party the conversation should steer clear of sex, politics or religion. Even if we regard such formal guidance as a little old-fashioned, a lot of our conversations, when dining out, particularly with people we may not know so well, do tend to the superficial and ignore the issues that really matter. Jesus is demonstrating the opposite, he is choosing not only to dine with people who have different views to him but to engage in a meaningful conversation with them. He is choosing topics that might bring about a difference of opinion, that might challenge. Indeed we can go further, he is choosing topics that will bring about a difference of opinion, that will challenge. He is doing his hosts the honour of taking them seriously, of talking about things that matter rather than the merely superficial.

For want of a concrete example of this I want to turn the tables on their heads and tell of a time when I was invited to a meal by people of another faith. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001. We had been living in Melbourne for just over a year. As in so much of the world there had been a wave of anti-muslim feeling. In response the Islamic community in Melbourne chose to invite people from the local churches to share with them in their Iftar feast. Most of us think of Ramadan as a time of fasting but the fast is only for daylight hours and on the evening after the sun has set the tradition is for Muslim families to share a celebratory meal called Iftar.

So I drove across Melbourne to large house in the northwest suburbs. There I met a muslim family and small group of Christians drawn from from across the city. A young woman welcomed us in and made us welcome. She told us about the feast and how it is a Muslim characteristic to be hospitable. She traced this back to the example in the Quran of Abraham who invited three strangers into his house, the story we have read earlier from our scriptures this morning. We started the meal with a date – apparently it is not good to break the fast to quickly, and then moved on to more substantial fare. Having shared some of her tradition with us and something of the fear that her community had for the future, she invited us to tell stories of our traditions and to share our hopes and fears for our communities. Over the meal we talked of things that mattered. We learned to understand, we made friends with people we had never met.

I left that meal in a state of grace. I remember driving back through the dark with a feeling of elation and filled with the spirit. We had some special experiences in the nine years we were in Melbourne but I don’t think there was a night when my heart was moved as much as it was that night. I felt truly blessed.

So let’s not just think this month about what we can and should eat. Let’s not just use it as an excuse to dine with old friends. Let’s look around us and see if there is anyone we can invite to our table as an act of outreach and mission. Let’s look out for people in  our community who are different to us and who might disagree with what we think. Let’s look for opportunities to invite them to a table to talk about things that matter, to seek what is of value in their lives as well as expressing what is of value in ours. Who knows? God’s grace may settle on our table in the same way it did on the table I dined at on that evening fifteen years ago on the other side of the planet.

Christ the Redeemer

This sermon was preached on the last Sunday during the Olympic Games, 2016. A picture of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio standing against a bright blue sky was projected onto the screen behind the preacher throughout the sermon. Earlier in the sermon we had listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

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This Sunday feels a little bit different. It’s the last but one Sunday and the church’s year and numbers are down in the middle of the summer holidays. It just feels an opportunity to do something a little bit different. So instead of being led in our thoughts by a passage from scripture I want us to be led by a work of engineering and art.

I think this can be very useful every so often. When most of us, who’ve been in the church for some time, read the Bible we do so with some theological baggage. We have conceptions about what the passage should mean and how we should approach it. When we approach God through a work of art we can be liberated from some of that baggage and maybe think a little more broadly and creatively. Any of you who have been to John’s film based discussions will know that those films provoke very different conversations to those that arise in most Bible study sessions.

So as you’ll have gathered from the time we’ve already shared with the children we are going to reflect on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It was proposed in the early 1920s by a Catholic church that was beginning to feel its influence wane partly as a result of the increasing influence of Protestantism, and partly through a trend to a more secular society. It was also a reaction to the horrors of the previous decade in Europe and a desire to provide a focus for Catholicism within Brazil. After several design changes and a major engineering challenge it was officially opened on 12th October 1931.

Christ the redeemer is about redemption. Having commented earlier on about theological baggage there can be no more baggage laden word in the whole of theology, particularly for Protestants. We are all fallen, needing salvation, we can only receive this through faith in Jesus. If we do we are saved. Different people will have a different view of what it means to be saved but the majority of Christians probably still relate this to a promise of eternal life. Many of us will also claim a strong association between faith in Jesus and coming to church and we thus end up in the rather comfortable position that those of us who have faith and come to church will be saved whereas all those who don’t and stay away won’t.

Except it’s not that comfortable is it? Almost all of us will have close friends and relations who we love but who don’t share our faith in Christ. We may be saved but what will happen to them?

Many of us will have tried to raise our children to know Jesus and have faith in him. Many of us, to put it bluntly, have failed in this (including myself). It is difficult to rejoice in your own salvation and still worry about that of you children.

There is an opposite challenge of course for those of us who come to faith from non-Christian families. They will know the joy of faith in Jesus but will almost certainly have parents or siblings who have no interest in Jesus and his offer of redemption.

All of us here, no matter how sure we may be of our own salvation, will have doubts and concerns about that of people we love. This may be exacerbated if we’ve got specific views about what might happen in any afterlife. In extreme if we believe that those who have been saved will pass to one place and those who have not may pass to another.

I’m just going to pause and let you reflect on the people that you love in your life yet who do not share your faith.

But then look at this statue – Do we see judgement? Do we see a division of the population of the world into those who have been saved and those who have not been saved? I don’t think so. I think we see love and acceptance for all. Those arms don’t offer a different welcome for the saint and the sinner, they offer the same welcome.

I’ve picked the parable for this morning’s reading partly because it is a work of art. It is a story that someone (presumably Jesus) made up. There is absolutely no pretence that it is true in any historical sense. It has been created in the same sense that a statue has been created – it is work of fiction and a work of art. Yet it embodies truth – it speaks to us.

It speaks the same message as the statue. It is a message of unconditional love of the father. In protestant theology we tend to think that the young man is saved because he come home. But he isn’t really – his father loves him, and will continue to love him, whether he comes home or not. If the son had not come home, the father would still be waiting. While the story is traditionally known as the parable of the Prodigal Son it is also known as that of the Loving Father, I know which I prefer.

The father’s love was so deep that every day he went and looked down the road, waiting, with arms outstretched for a son he loved. The son is saved not because of anything that the son has done but because of the father’s love. Those open arms, have been replicated to perfection, in this statue.

So let’s pause again and reflect on all those people who we love yet do not recognise the love of God.

Let’s be guided by the truth embedded in this statue. They are not excluded from God’s love, no-one is excluded from God’s love, they have just failed to recognise it. Those of us who do recognise that love, live in a different way. We live in relationship with God and our lives are blessed by this. We can feel sorrow for our unbelieving family and friends that the do not experience the joy of the relationship with God that we have, but let us not be concerned that anything awful is going to happen to them. It cannot because God loves them every bit as much as he loves us. His arms, like those of this stature, are open to all, and always will be. For this we give thanks – Amen.

What is the role of the church at a time of national turmoil?

This sermon was preached about 10 days after the UK voted to leave the European Union – Brexit as it is now called. It is based on Galatians 6:1-10.

I’ve been invited here to talk about Christian Aid and I will, but only later in this sermon. I don’t think I can stand up in a pulpit this morning and not say something about the situation that our own country is in at the moment. We seem to be in a complete mess don’t we?

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The trigger for this mess has been the referendum. One side clearly got more votes than the other, but only by a small margin. The conclusion of the referendum shouldn’t really be that there is agreement within the electorate about the way forward for our country. The conclusion should be that there is disagreement about the way forward. Whilst it is clear that the leave campaign got the largest proportion of the votes in an election that triggered the highest turnout in recent political history. It is perhaps important to remember that they won 37% of the votes of the total electorate to the Remain campaign’s 35%. We are a nation divided.

Following this  there has been turmoil on the financial markets. The pound crashed and hasn’t recovered. Nearly 2 trillion pounds was wiped off the value of the stock market we are told. This hasn’t lasted. The FTSE index has now bounced back to well above the pre-referendum result. What does it all mean?

Perhaps most obviously at the moment there is a lack of consent over the leadership of our two main political parties. Present indications suggest that Theresa May will become leader of the conservatives and prime minister. This will leave someone who felt it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU to lead the country through the process when we leave. How can that make sense? In retrospect it seems a bizarre that the referendum was conducted that has allowed the people to vote for a policy that none of the major political parties believes in.

And what of the 30,000 people yesterday who marched through London in favour of the EU? Are they anti-democratic in fighting against the result of a fair referendum  – or is there justification that the referendum was fought on a number of lies and promises that the major leave campaigners have now reneged on once the votes have been cast?

I started off by declaring that we are in a mess and this seems to be the one thing, perhaps the only thing, that we can concluded with certainty from the events of the last 10 days. But we’re a church, we’re in an act of Christian Worship. What is the role of the church? What is our role as Christians at a time of political crisis?

The Methodist Church has combined with the Baptists, URC and Church of Scotland to form the Joint Public Issues Team. The Team aims to enable our four Churches to work together in living out the gospel of Christ in the Church and in wider society. We aim to promote equality and justice by influencing those in power and by energising and supporting local congregations.

It published a booklet “Think, Pray, Vote” to guide its church members through the issues of the referendum campaign. That booklet takes as its starting point the “new commandments” of Jesus that we should Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds and love our neighbours as ourselves”. It goes on to suggest that for Christians the question underpinning the referendum should have been “To what extent does the European Union enhance or hinder our ability to love our neighbour and, in doing so, our ability to love God?”

There are two consequences of this approach which I want to focus on. The first is the implication here that, as Christians we should be voting for the option that gives us the best opportunity to love our neighbour. Our vote should not be cast for what we want, it should be cast for what God wants. This made the referendum very difficult because both sides were campaigning incessantly on what would be best for us and not exploring what would be best for our neighbour. An example would be the discussion of the money that we pay into the EU each week (whether it be £350 million or £120 million). We heard a lot of money about who gives it (us) but very little about who receives it (those areas of the EU who are much less well off than we are).

But the other thing that is important about the Church’s response is that it doesn’t advocate a particular policy. It acknowledges that the issues and political environment are complex and that, whilst Christians may agree in the overall aim, there might be differences of opinion amongst Christians in how to achieve it. The role of the church is to remind us of the values we hold as important and to place those at the forefront of our decision making.

This is essentially the message of the passage we have heard from Galatians this morning. The passage asks us to remind each other of God’s purpose. It places a particular burden on us to do this at times when we fear that others may have been misguided, but it also reminds us that we should continually test and re-test our own actions. It reminds us that if we sow to please the Spirit then from the Spirit we will reap eternal life. Finally it concludes “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people”.

You may feel that there is little you can do to influence the national debate but the nation is comprised of individuals, that is the essential truth that is acknowledge by any referendum and it is essential that we do what we can. In the coming weeks I ask you to go into your communities, to talk to friends and colleagues and families and to remind them of the values that we as Christians hold dear. Don’t necessarily get drawn into fierce political arguments but do remind others that we want a society that places the needs of our neighbours (however we define them) as more important than our own.

Which brings me back to Christian aid. Christian Aid is an organisation which has been doing exactly this for more than 70 years now. It has been promoting Christian values of compassion, justice and love to the British population. It does propose solutions and it does advocate policy but above all it reminds people of the centrality of Jesus commandment that we love our neighbour. The theme for this year has been “Love every neighbour”.

The house to house collection in Christian Aid week is the biggest single act of Christian witness in the UK every year. It is not just offering people an opportunity to donate money, it is placing before them a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven in which the poor shall be valued and the hungry fed. It is placing our values at the heart of the national debate. And it works, one of the things that we should acknowledge, whatever we think of our outgoing prime minister is that he has fought hard to increase, sustain and protect the overseas aid budget of this country. That wouldn’t be possible without the campaigning work of Christian and secular aid agencies working together to remind us all who our neighbours are.

So on behalf of Christian Aid I thank you for the support you have given us in the past. We are particularly thankful for the work of individuals like Bob but we are also thankful for the commitment of anyone who has supported our work in whatever way.

I want to end by re-inviting you to share Christian Aid’s mission in your own lives. I invite you to pray, particularly over the coming weeks of political turmoil, to be reminded of who your neighbour is and how you can express your love for them. Try not to get pulled into the nastiness of partisan political debate. Try instead to focus on a vision of God’s Kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and the sick cared for. Our role as Christians is to hold up these values as our gift to the world and to pray that others receive that gift and work with us towards bringing that Kingdom to fruition.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

A question of sovereignty

This sermon was preached about two weeks before the Brexit vote (although it has been posted since then and in knowledge of the result I’ve not changed what I wrote originally). It was preached as as  series of three mini-sermons each based on a different Bible passage of which I’ve quoted a few verses. In between I’ve placed links to videos of the hymns I chose.

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Introduction

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established  as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills,  and peoples will stream to it.  Many nations will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the temple of the God of Jacob.He will teach us his ways,  so that we may walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion,  the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.

From Micah 4:1-4.

June 23rd fill present us with the biggest political decision facing the country in a generation. Should we leave or stay in the EU? This is difficult to preach about. I don’t think there is a “Christian” view of whether we should leave or stay. I am sure there will be a diversity of opinion within congregation, there certainly is within the community and within the country. I’ll be quite honest, I’ve got a very clear view of which way I’m going to vote. That view will almost certainly be shared enthusiastically by some of you and vehemently opposed by others. My purpose this morning is not to abuse my position in this pulpit by trying to persuade you to my point of view but to ask what Christianity has to say about the issues.

Just because I don’t believe that there is a Christian view on the way we should vote doesn’t mean that I don’t believe the church has got anything to say. I do believe that there is a strong Christian view on what the issues are, or at the very least what they should be. I think as Christians together we should be able to agree on what those issues are, even if, as individuals, we have different opinions about whether remaining or leaving is the best option to address them.

I went to a session put on by Churches together in Poynton last week which was attended by Edwina Curry amongst others. Although there were representatives from both campaigns present, the main activity of the evening was for the audience to sit around tables and talk to each other. Around our table, as around all tables, there was a wide diversity of opinion. But what really helped us to share a meaningful conversation was being asked first of all us to identify what the issues were and only then to have a discussion about whether these would be better addressed by being inside or outside the EU. It worked very well and there was a depth of debate that went far beyond the superficial squabbling and name calling that seems to have characterised the national debate.

A significant part of the debate has been about sovereignty. The Leave side think that our country should have sovereignty – it should retain the authority to make decisions for itself. In many ways they would see that this is what defines a modern state. The Remain campaign believes that, by pooling certain aspects of decision making power with other countries, we can achieve more than any country could do individually. There are very different views about who should be in control.

Most Christians, however, would believe that in some sense God should be in control. I don’t think that it is good theology for us to want to claim sovereignty for ourselves. We believe that sovereignty rests with God. It is God who decides what is right and it is then our responsibility to try and work to bring about God’s will. This is the vision that is placed in front of us in this reading from Micah. He will teach us his ways,  so that we may walk in his paths.

Let us listen to God and what he wants because it is only when we have done this that we will be able to walk in his path. For Christians the issue should not be about whether power rests in Westminster or in Brussels but which is more likely to bring about God’s will.

So having established this as the overall question that Christians need to consider in preparation for the referendum I want to look a three specific issues, Peace, Prosperity and Poverty.

Peace

He will judge between many peoples  and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

From Micah 4:1-4

 God wants us to live in peace. The passage we’ve just heard read is one of the most powerful in the whole of the Bible. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

One of the first things we have to remember about the EU is that it was born out of a continent which had been ravaged by war for centuries and had just emerged from being at the epicentre of the two most savage wars in history. I’m too young to remember the Second World War and the absolute mess that Europe was in at the end of it but some of you may just remember.

The foundation of the EU was a direct response to this and almost literally a working out of the injunction to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks in that it started with European Coal and Steel Community. The factories that had been used to produced ammunitions were being converted to building the infrastructure required for peace. It is no coincidence that shortly after that there emerged the foundation of the Common Agricultural Policy to ensure that there was enough food to eat and that farmers were adequately paid for this whilst prices were kept low enough for people to afford. The ploughshares and pruning hooks were forged.

There can be no real doubt that the EU has been successful in this. It is absolutely inconceivable – to me – that Europe will ever have another war on the scale of those of the last century. We have learnt to live together, to grow food together, to trade together. The role of the EU in building and consolidating peace in Europe has been recognised by the Nobel prize committee who awarded the Peace Prize to the whole of the EU in 2012.

But just because the EU has had such a strong role in establishing peace in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it is best served to consolidate that peace in the future. There is a strong argument that, in relation to establishing peace, that the EU has done its job, that that process is essentially complete, that war between nations within Europe is inconceivable.

The threats to our security have changed. They no longer come from aggressor nations within Europe. They come from unstable nations beyond Europe and through how this spills into Europe through the action of various terrorist groups. Often this is inflamed by fundamentalist religions but it is also deeply rooted in the inequality of power and wealth distribution across the planet.

It is not obvious to me – at any level of detail. Whether remaining in or leaving the EU is more likely to consolidate peace in Europe. Reducing border controls undoubtedly makes it easier for terrorists to travel, but increased cooperation between nations in gathering information for security purposes is presumably our most effective weapon in fighting this. How these balance out in reality I’m just not qualified to judge, but I do think that as Christians one of the first questions we should be asking in this referendum is which choice is going to do the most to promote peace across Europe.

Make me a channel of your peace

Prosperity

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12

Much of the debate about the EU is economic. The fundamental question we are faced with is whether the country will be more prosperous within or outside the EU. The leave campaign believe that by withdrawing we will stop having to make payments to the EU and that we will be left in a stronger position to trade with partners outside the EU. The leave campaign think that the economy will suffer if we reduce our links with Europe and that tax revenue lost will be greater than the contributions we make at present. Both sides are coming up with ludicrously exaggerated claims about what would happen if the other side won. Both sides are clearly exaggerating how the economy might respond to a decision either way.

The Biblical perspective on prosperity is an interesting one. At one level it is grounded and realistic. It is quite clear that no-one is owed a living and that we should all expect to pay our way. This is clear from the words we’ve just heard from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. Several of Jesus parables clearly suggest that we should be using our talents to generate income and provide for ourselves.

On the other hand there are many more passages in the Bible and particularly in the teaching of Jesus, where the dangers of becoming obsessed by wealth are spelled out. The most obvious is the story of the rich young man who asked what he must do to gain eternal life and was told to give away all he possessed. On balance the Christian position is that we should expect to work to ensure we have enough to live on but should not make accumulating wealth the driving motivation in our lives.

In the context of the current debate we should perhaps remind ourselves that the UK is the fifth biggest economy on the planet. We tend to hide this from ourselves by our obsession with growth. It is true that the economy isn’t growing at the moment but we shouldn’t let this obscure the fact that we are still, as a nation exceedingly wealthy. Being inside or outside the EU may make a small difference to just how that wealth develops in the future but the decision either way is unlikely to affect our basic position as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

If we take a biblical position on wealth we should be thankful for the wealth we have. We should accept that this wealth is a product of our industry in the past and strive to be productive in the future. But we should not let allow our obsession with wealth creation to become the sole focus of the debate.

If there is one contribution that I think Christianity can make to the present debate(in relation to the EU and more widely) it is to ask politicians to focus less on how we create more wealth and more on how we use the wealth we already have to create a society that is more reflective of God’s Kingdom. It’s a debate that we have heard almost nothing about from either side in this referendum campaign.

For the fruits of our creation

Poverty

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,  for he has been mindful  of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones  but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things  but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,  just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:46-55

I often preach from the lectionary, from the list of Bible readings set for each week. I’ve not done that this week, clearly a list of readings on a three year cycle is not a good framework for thinking about an issue like the EU referendum which only occurs once in a generation. When I do stray from the lectionary I find that the Magnificat is a passage that I want to preach from more and more.

It’s a revolutionary vision of god’s Kingdom sung by a pregnant young woman. Mary is feeling God’s potential growing inside her and she’s dreaming about how the world can be. It drives her to express herself in song. How marvellous is that. The vision is of a radically different society to the one Mary lived in 2,000 years ago, the one we still live in today. It is a vision of the rulers being cast down and the humble lifted up. It is a vision of the rich being sent away and the hungry filled with good things. It is a vision of the poor and downtrodden being placed at the centre of the political debate.

As Christians we believe that a society is judged not by how wealth is amassed by the powerful and wealthy but in how it is shared with the poor and humble. I’ve talked about peace and I’ve talked about prosperity but I now turn to a third P, poverty. In many ways this is the silent P in the current debate whether it is in how we confront our politicians, or when we decide how to vote. Perhaps the most important question we should be asking ourselves as Christians is not, how will this affect the affluence of the rich (the centre of the debate at the moment) but how will it affect the lives of the poor.

I don’t think there is a clear answer here. Particularly perhaps, because the question has not been addressed within the debate so far. The most obvious vulnerable group to be affected by leaving or remaining in the EU are the unemployed. There is a perception that immigrants are affecting the potential of our own citizens to get jobs but actually unemployment rates are at an all-time low marginally over 5% at the moment even though immigration is at a record high. On the other hand a plentiful immigrant workforce  prepared to work for low wages are probably reducing pressures on employers to increase wages above the current minimum wage. So maybe although immigration is not affecting employment rates it might be artificially reducing living standards for the poorly paid. On the other hand many immigrants are working in the care sector doing basic jobs in care homes or hospitals. If they were forced to return home who would do the job of looking after the vulnerable in our society? We just don’t know.

There is also a broader perspective. The current debate tends to focus on whether people within the UK will be better or worse off whereas as Christians we have a concern for all God’s people. How often do we hear politicians addressing this issue? Much of the money that we give to the EU is spent in developing the infrastructure and economies of poorer countries within the EU. Maybe we should be less concerned with how those payments affect our economy and more concerned about how they affect theirs. It’s a debate we’ve just not heard isn’t it.

In summary I’d encourage you all to pray and about the referendum. Pray purposefully. Pray not so much for one solution or the other but for a debate which focusses on the issues that your God would see as important. Pray that people will vote for the option most likely to  consolidate the peace we have within Europe. Pray that people will be less concerned about their own prosperity. Follow Mary and pray that the concerns of the poor and oppressed will be central to the debate.

And tell other’s of your prayers. Tell your friends, tell your families. If you pray alone you will influence one vote, if you share your prayers with others you may influence many.

Christian Aid Week and Pentecost

I’m sure it is no coincidence that Christian Aid week quite often coincides with Pentecost and this sermon considers the link between them. It follows a reading of John 14:8-17 and 25-27 in which Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is Christian Aid Sunday which is something I am passionate about. Every year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, almost all of them Christian church-goers, flood out onto the streets during Christian Aid week and raise over £6 million. The annual collection is the largest single act of Christian witness we have in this country.

Its history is particularly relevant to us in Europe at the moment. It started in the aftermath of the Second World War, as Christian Reconstruction in Europe.  When British and Irish Church ministers met determined to do everything they could to help European refugees who had last everything. We tend to think as refugees as a modern challenge but Christian Aid has been addressing their needs for nearly 70 years.

Today is also Pentecost. The Christian celebration of God’s Spirit coming among us to inspire, motivate and empower us to go into the world and work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. What better symbol could we have of this than Christian Aid week? Even the colours match. The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. In the church I went to when we lived in Australia we were all encouraged to wear red at Pentecost. On many years I went along in the shirt I am wearing today. The colour of Christian Aid week is also red. Every collector who goes onto the streets this week will be carrying a bright red bag like this one. Look out for them, recognise God’s Spirit at work on our streets.

One aspect of Christian Aid week that I want to focus on this morning is how it is so obviously a good thing. We just look at it, all those people giving up their time, to collect significant sums of money for people throughout the world who have nothing. We have heard this morning the Word’s that the author of John’s gospel attributes to Jesus:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

God is going to give us the Spirit of Truth. We shall recognise this because it will be written in our hearts. The idea that an ability to recognise God and Truth, through what is written in our hearts is a strong and recurrent theme in the Bible. It’s true isn’t it? When we see God acting most powerfully in our lives we can recognise it instantly. There is something deep within us that responds to God and recognises him. Christian Aid week is a good example of this. We can see what is going on and something deep within us responds and recognises God working through it. All those Christians across Britain and Ireland setting out to ask for money, the money itself (£6.5 million pounds), the network of international partners to whom that money is spent. Most importantly we recognise God in the way that the lives of some of the poorest people in the world are transformed. All over the world people like Morsheda are being transformed into people like Feroza.

This ability to recognise God’s will through an effect deep within us and the willingness to be led by that experience is fundamental to Christianity. It contrasts strongly, however, with the way the rest of the world is moving at the moment. There seems to me to be a rapidly growing conviction that all we need to do to be responsible members of society is to keep within the law. The emphasis seems to be shifting from a desire to do what is good to a lesser goal of merely avoiding what is illegal. Within this there is a further trend to push the boundaries of the law so that many individuals and institutions will try and bend the law as much as possible to their advantage. Perhaps the clearest example at the moment is international tax law. The positions of the establishment at the moment appears to be that as long as companies are managing their businesses within the law then they are behaving appropriately. This leads to the situation in which the largest companies spend extremely large amounts of money employing clever people to work out ways of avoiding paying tax. This may be through multi-national companies transferring funds between different countries or by setting up labyrinthine and secretive financial arrangements based around foreign tax havens. Whenever these arrangements are questioned the establishment response is generally that the companies and individuals have done nothing illegal. We need to understand that there is a difference between doing what is legal and doing what is right. Doing what is legal results in trillions of dollars being sucked out of the world economy, particularly in the developing world, and deposited in secretive bank accounts. That money dwarfs the total global development budget, let alone what Christian Aid collects each year. If the world could focus on what is good rather than what is legal there would be absolutely no need for Christian Aid. God is not satisfied with us doing what is legal, he wants us to do what is right and to help us distinguish between the two he has sent his Spirit to live within us.

Most of us understand what Pentecost represents as a Christian Festival but to understand its significance we also need to understand what it represented as a Jewish festival. To the Jews, Pentecost was, and still is, a festival to mark God giving the Ten Commandments. It occurs 49 days after Passover to reflect the Jewish understanding, from biblical texts, that God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments 49 days after they had been liberated from Egypt on the first Passover. The Ten Commandments were a great move forwards in the history of religion. It is one of the very first ethical codes adopted by any religion anywhere. The commandments marked a transition from assuming that religion was primarily about appeasing God, or the gods, by religious ritual, particularly those involving animal sacrifice, to a view that religion should guide how we live our everyday lives.

The commandments were still, however, essentially a list of laws. It wasn’t long before those ten laws multiplied within Jewish culture. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are almost entirely composed of laws. Laws about what you should eat, how you should worship, how you should dress. As a church we visited the Manchester Jewish Museum within the old Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road just north of the city centre. It was fascinating visit but left me quite depressed at the emphasis there seemed to be observing what seemed to be as rather petty rules.

The early Christian movement presented something quite different – a new relationship with God not through observance of laws but through a personal relationship with the Spirit written in our hearts. It is now coincidence that that movement remembers that gift as being given on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The symbolism is that the emphasis on observation of the Law has been replaced by that on a personal relationship with God. We have replaced a Jewish festival which celebrates one with a Christian festival which celebrates the other.

So let us join in that celebration. Let us all recognise the Spirit of God written within our hearts. Let us be inspired by the disciples who first experienced God in their hearts and went out to do what is right. Let us be inspired by all those Christian Aid collectors who have experienced God in their hearts and are stepping out of the comfort of their homes to do what they believe is right.  Let us not be satisfied, either as individuals or as a society, with doing what is legal. Let us work for what is right. It is only through doing this that we will work together with each other and our God to build his Kingdom.

 

Ride on, ride on in majesty?

800px-assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti.

This is a sermon preached on Palm Sunday after a reading of Luke’s account of the “Triumphal Entry”.

I’ve preached here before on Palm Sunday. I know because I always find it a challenge to preach on Palm Sunday and I can remember facing up to that challenge here in a previous year. The challenge is that traditional perceptions of what Palm Sunday should be and my own reading of the scriptures disagree quite fundamentally. Traditionally Palm Sunday is perceived as a time of celebration – a time when the church celebrates with the crowd in Jerusalem before getting down to the real business of Holy Week.

When I read the scriptures that is not what I think is appropriate. If the crowd were celebrating (Luke’s gospel is inconclusive and can be read as suggesting that it was actually the disciples who were celebrating), they were celebrating for the wrong reason. The crowd wanted a political leader to free them from oppression. They wanted a competitor for Pilate who was probably progressing to his palace from the other side of city. For many of them, worn down by years of oppression and poverty, they may simply have wanted a party.

I don’t think, though, that Jesus was celebrating. He chose to ride on a donkey, the most humble of beasts. His is not a triumphant entry, it is a humble entry, even a penitential entry. Jesus knows that in entering Jerusalem he is signing his own death warrant. This is not a time of celebration for Jesus. It is the start of a long walk from freedom to death row. Make no mistake, Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week.

The lectionary hides this to a certain extent. It misses the point, it focuses on the celebration. It stops short of the two verses that make it clear that this is very far from a celebration in the eyes of Jesus. ‘He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying, “If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, He sees the celebrating crowds and knows that they are celebrating for the wrong reasons. Put yourself in his shoes, you feel you’ve been sent by God to preach his word. You’ve spent the last three years travelling round the country preaching that word with a disparate groups of disciples and with no place to call home. You thought you were getting somewhere, you thought the people understood. You thought it was time to come to Jerusalem and proclaim God’s Kingdom in the holiest of cities … and when you get there you realise that no-one has understood you – that they’ve got it wrong. How would that make you feel? I suspect it would drive you to weep.

“If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Don’t those words resonate for us today as we look around the world? As we watch our televisions, listen to our radios, read our newspapers. We can apply them literally to countries at war or at risk of war. If only we knew today what is needed for peace in Syria. Alternatively we can be more metaphorical and apply them to political turmoil caused by corrupt politicians in countries like Brazil. We can apply them to the fear of immigration that is threatening to dissolve 70 years of peace and cooperation within Europe. We can apply them to the war that we are fighting with our own planet. We can apply them to a war that is being fought within our society and as reflected in the recent turmoil within the conservative party between those who have much and want more and those who have very little. If only we knew today what was needed for peace – but we cannot see it. Palm Sunday is not a time to celebrate with the crowd but a time to empathise with Jesus and weep with him.

But it is more than that – it is also a time of hope. Jesus felt all these things. He must have wondered if all his sacrifices so far had been in vain. He must have wanted to get off that donkeys back, turn around and walk back to a quiet life in the rural town from which he had come. But he didn’t, he continued riding forwards, through the gates and into the city. For all that he must have questioned whether he was being successful or not, he knew that this was his purpose. Recognising how little the people knew of God’s Kingdom he was even more determined than ever to explain it to them. According to Luke’s Gospel he rode straight on to the Temple and began to drive out those who did not understand what the Temple was for, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be a house of prayer.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!” Jesus turned his disappointment and pity into motivation to follow God even more actively. Rather than turning away in despair he upped his game in hope.

There are many reasons for the contemporary church to share Jesus’ disappointment, pity and perhaps even despair. As I’ve already noted there are all sorts of situations in our world where what is needed is peace but where society cannot see how to achieve it. After a period of perhaps a thousand years when the church has dominated society within Europe it is in serious decline. Our congregations are getting older, they are getting smaller and in many cases are disappearing. To many of us the society in which we live seems to have turned away from God. Jesus preached of God’s Kingdom for three years only to discover, on his arrival in Jerusalem, that no-one had understood. Has the church in Europe been preaching the same message for a thousand years with the same result?

There is, of course, a complex answer to this question. Whilst there are undoubtedly many aspects of modern society that lead us to despair, considerable progress has been made. We live in a democracy in which all people regardless of gender, wealth, race or physical ability have equal rights. Slavery has been abolished (if not eradicated entirely). Western Europe, at least, has left behind war and recognised that political cooperation is the pathway to future prosperity. For all the tensions within our education, healthcare and welfare systems we recognise that the extent to which we educate our children, care for the ill and support the disadvantaged are measures of the health of our society. Many of these things have been driven by Christians active within society and most of the rest has been driven by a contemporary value system which, whilst becoming apparently more secular, is a direct consequence of that thousand years of Christian teaching.

All this, it can be argued, is a result of Jesus not turning back, of him putting aside his personal sense of despair and focussing on God and the world’s need for His Kingdom, of a recognition that whilst that Kingdom will not appear overnight it will come. It is the result of Jesus placing hope at the centre of his mission.

Let’s do the same. Let’s look at the progress that the world has made through the time of Christendom and give thanks. We should by all means look at the contemporary world and recognise that the completion of God’s kingdom still seems only a far off prospect. But we should recognise that it is a progress that has started, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our role as a church, however, small or apparently impotent we may feel ourselves, is to hold up God’s light to the world, to proclaim the Good News, to offer up Hope. In a world that is desperate for peace we must show how this can be attained.  If Jesus, sitting on that donkey, in the middle of a crowd that was celebrating for the wrong reasons, and conscious of the hostile establishment within Jerusalem could continue to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, then so to can we. Amen.

A new war on terror?

A sermon preached on Sunday 15th November in response to the terrorist attacks on France last Friday. Bible readings were Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 5:38-48. The readings had been separated by a video of the ABC interview with Diane Foley following the assumed killing of Mohammed Emwahzi, who had killed her son James.

APTOPIX Brazil France Paris Attacks

The statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio floodlit in solidarity with the people of Paris 

Earlier this year in the run up to the election the leaders of all three major political parties launched Easter messages. David Cameron was the only one of them who identifies himself as a Christian. You can see his video on YouTube. The central message is that the United Kingdom is a Christian country and that we should be proud of this and celebrate it. It made me wonder how a Christian country should respond to the outrages in Paris earlier in the weekend.

You might expect a Christian country to look first to the Bible. The Bible, of course, is a complex book, or collection of books. All too often we struggle to find a simple message to guide our actions. I thus often choose quite different passages to shed light on a common topic from different angles. On particular themes however a clear and consistent message is presented and today I’ve chosen two extremely similar passages to emphasize this. The first we’ve heard is from Matthew’s gospel. It is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Few biblical scholars believe that this was ever preached by Jesus as a single sermon. Most think it more likely that this is collation of Jesus’s sayings from throughout his ministry. As such it is generally an excellent starting point to try and explore Jesus teaching.

The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It was written between about 55 and 60BC, about 30 years after Jesus teaching. It was written at a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly through the Mediterranean region. This is, of course, indicated by the title; it is a letter to the Christian community in Rome. In this respect it is quite different to the Sermon on the Mount. If the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus sayings abstracted from the context in which they were originally delivered then Paul’s letter is to a very specific community at a very specific time. Its contents are practical advice for how to live in the context that the Christians found themselves in. An important part of that context was that the Christians were a persecuted minority who felt powerless to respond to the forces that persecuted them. We read this from verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse”.

Mourn with those who mourn

Perhaps the most important starting point in applying these passages to the present situation is verse 15, “mourn with those who mourn”. We are called to empathise with those who have suffered loss. In many ways it is difficult to have any other response given the immediacy of the television news over the last two days. Given those harrowing pictures it is almost impossible not to feel the pain. The pictures go further and reinforce this international mourning process. We started our service this morning with the picture of a woman in lighting candles in the shape of a question mark outside the French embassy in Prague. There have been candlelit vigils throughout the world. The Sydney Opera house has turned into a tricolour as has the Taipei 101 building, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the walls of the old city in Jerusalem, the Oriental Pearl tower in Shanghai, the Brandenberg gait. This is a truly modern phenomenon, expressions of global grief unknown before the century within which we now live and sending a powerful message to the French people.

But is our mourning selective? By the latest estimates of the Nobel Prize Winning American group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1.3 million civilians have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since the start of the war on terror. This carnage isn’t something of the distant past. It is the day to day reality of life that is being lived out by millions of people throughout the Middle East. Where is the outpouring of grief, where are the symbols of international solidarity for these people. Why do we choose to grieve for some people and not for others? How would the foreign policy of a country that grieved with all victims of terror throughout the world be different from that of a country that only chooses to grieve for the people that it has most in common with? How would a truly Christian country react to the reality of the modern world?

Do not take revenge

The second message that I want to focus on that is common to these two passages is the rejection of revenge as a motive. Paul says this explicitly in verse 19 “Do not take revenge”. Jesus says it implicitly “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. It is interesting that the section of the Sermon on the Mount that exhorts us to Love our enemy is preceded by the statement over-ruling the old teaching of an “eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth”. We have to remember that that was originally a statement of limitation. Where there is no law, disputes readily escalate if the reaction of a crime is out of proportion to the crime itself. There is a strong argument that the American reaction to the events of 9/11 is just such an example. The old demand that the reaction to crime should be in proportion to the nature of the crime helped to stable society. But Jesus and Paul both go further. They both want to remove any motive of revenge from our response. Let God take care of revenge, let us explore how to respond in love.

The reactions to the killing of Mohammed Emwazi amongst the relatives of the people he killed have varied greatly. Many have expressed relief, a few have expressed satisfaction, but, as a Christian, the one which spoke most deeply to me was the response we have heard this morning from Diane Foley. The emotion she expresses is one of sadness. Sadness that yet another individual has been destroyed by conflict. Sadness that something awful has transformed an ordinary young , who was remembered this week by his previous teachers as hard working and proud of his educational success, into a pathological killer. Her son, she says, would have wanted to befriend him. I don’t know what religious background Dian Foley comes from, I don’t know what motivated her son, but I do know that his actions and her words embody in the twenty-first century what both Jesus and Paul were talking and writing about  2,000 years ago.

Yet both David Cameron and Francoise Hollande, following in the pattern set by George W Bush after 9/11, have promised revenge. Both have promised to pursue the perpetrators “without mercy”. Is this the response of a Christian country? Micah reminds us that what God requires is that we, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”.

Overcome evil with good

The response of a Christian country, I believe, is encapsulated in the last two verses of the reading we have heard from Romans:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In our response to this weekend’s events let us not try and respond to terror with ever more terror, let us not demand a tooth for a tooth or an eye for an eye. Let us seek to overcome evil with good.

The American war on Iraq has been calculated to have cost America 1.1 trillion dollars. That is just the American contribution and is limited to Iraq. According to the Ministry of Defence the UK contributed a further £8 billion. We spent even more money on the war with Afghanistan (although the Americans spent less). To put this in context, the Americans spent more on the war in Iraq than they would spend on their total budget for overseas aid for the whole world for 35 years.

Just imagine if instead of waging a war with weapons that the Americans had listened to Paul and had chosen to wage a war of love. Just imagine if instead of funding all those bombs that they had chosen to offer the same money to  build schools. Instead of sending troops to kill and control they had sent doctors and nurses to care and to heal. If they had beaten their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  If they had seen that their enemy was hungry and fed him, if they had recognised that their enemy was thirsty and given her water.

I know that this appears totally unrealistic, that it is an aspirational vision that can never be achieved. It’s not at all clear how America could have acted like this while Saddam Hussein was still in power. But isn’t that what our faith is about? Isn’t our faith about taking a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven and offering it to  the world? Isn’t it about looking at the world and saying, “yes this is how things are, but let’s imagine how they could be”? Isn’t it above all about praying, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”