Blessed are you who are poor?

A sermon preached on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – Luke 6:20-26.

Luke and Matthew both have accounts of the Beatitudes. They are different. Matthew locates them within an early sermon delivered on a mountain side, Luke also places them in an early sermon but one located on a plane. Matthew has eight, whereas Luke only has four. But then Luke includes four woes that repeat the beatitudes in a negative form. “Happy are you poor”. “How terrible for you who are rich”.

The wording also differs. Luke’s statements are short political statements about life as it was lived at the time. Matthew’s statements are more metaphorical with an essentially spiritual or religious message. Thus, Luke says simply “Happy are you poor” a statement about literal poverty, whereas Matthew says “Happy are you who are spiritually poor”, a statement using poverty as a metaphor for our spiritual health. Luke says “Happy are you who hunger” another literal statement whereas Matthew says “Happy are you who hunger for righteousness”, another metaphor about how we are spiritually.

There has been considerable debate among Christian scholars about how to account for these differences. The overall structure is sufficiently similar to assume that both gospels are referring to the same set of original sayings. Like most preachers Jesus will almost certainly have delivered similar but not identical sermons on different occasions to different people. It might be that Matthew and Luke are referring to different sermons. But then these particularly sayings are formalised almost as poetry. They don’t strike me as casual language that might vary from sermon to sermon, they feel like precisely worded epigrams that Jesus has polished and honed to say exactly what he meant to say. It’s quite possible that Jesus formalised the beatitudes in this way as a teaching tool with the intention that they could be remembered word by word. Here is something that is so important that you must remember it exactly.

The theory that most scholars hold to is that the gospel writers moulded what Jesus said to their own theological perspective. Luke, who probably says more about money and its corrupting power, than any of the other gospel writers, presents the beatitudes as being about actual poverty. Matthew, who is generally much more interested in Jesus as a religious figure, presents the beatitudes as being about spiritual poverty.

So which is correct? What did Jesus actually say? The short answer is we don’t know. Scholars vary in their opinions and, as might be expected those opinions tend to reflect the theology of the scholars. Those who see Jesus as primarily a figure of religious significance, tend to assume that Matthew’s version is the closer to the original. Those who tend to think that Jesus offered a political gospel will tend to prefer Luke’s version.

There are other clues. Generally speaking when similar sayings are found in the gospel, but one is longer than the other scholars tend to assume that it is more likely that an original shorter statement has been added to rather than that words from the longer statement have been deleted. Also in 1945 a “Gospel of Thomas” was discovered in the Egyptian desert and is believed to be a very early collection of the saying of Jesus. It includes another set of beatitudes that are much closer to Luke’s version than Matthew’s. Another argument, that sways me, is that where two such similar statements are found in the gospels, and one seems at odds with how early Christianity was developing at the time that it was written down, then that is most likely to be the true version. It is much more likely that someone would edit material to be in line with later thinking than to contradict it. It seems clear to me that much of the political radicalism that we read in the synoptic gospels was lost as the early Christian movement focussed on Jesus as of primarily religious significance. Luke, as a disciple of Paul, was part of that movement and it seems unlikely to me that he would have edited Jesus’ sayings to make them more political in nature. On balance, I think that Jesus’ original teaching was probably about real poverty and real hunger and real grief.

If we accept this, the first thing we have to ask is, “Does Jesus really think that poor, hungry, weeping people are happier than rich, satisfied, laughing people?” Is he saying that there is something that is inherently good about poverty and hunger? Should we intentionally make ourselves poor and hungry in order to find God? Is poverty the way to godliness?

If we start to think this way, then we have fallen into a trap. When Jesus talks so positively about “the poor”, he is not eulogising their status (he understood the desperation of their poverty all too well to do this), he is celebrating their potential. They are not happy because they are poor, they are happy because they will recognise God’s Kingdom when they see it. They are not happy because they are hungry, they are happy because they will be so appreciative when they are fed. They are not happy because they weep now, they are happy because one day they will laugh.

Another issue is in how we regard “the poor”. When we read this passage as Western Christians in a comfortable church in a reasonably affluent town just south on Manchester, “the poor” is “them”, somebody else, somebody out there. When Jesus was speaking in rural Galilee all those years ago, he was speaking to a crowd who recognised themselves as poor, hungry and weeping. They knew they were subjugated both by local civil and religious authorities and their Roman overlords.  “The poor” is “us”. Jesus is making a statement of solidarity with the people he is speaking to. Jesus is not just saying happy are the poor, he is saying happy are we, we are in this together.

But he is saying more than that he is not just saying “we are in this together”, he is saying “we are in this together and we have wonderful things to share”. When communities share each other’s poverty and hunger and grief they are in a much better position to build a kingdom of love than those who struggle individually to maintain wealth and privilege.

We went out to the cinema for the first time in two years last night. We saw Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s memoire about his early childhood. We were taken to a terraced street in working class Belfast. This was not a place of abject poverty but it was a place of where people struggled to make ends meet and lived in fear for their lives as the political situation deteriorated. But it was also a place of community. The street itself was full of life with children playing and older people taking their chairs outside to sit and pass the time of day with whoever was passing. Everyone knew everyone else, and they cared for each other and helped each other out. Multigenerational families lived their lives in close proximity. When Kenneth’s father suggests that moving to England would give them an opportunity to progress, his mother questions why anyone would want to progress from the strength of that community that supported each other through hardship. Branagh may be seeing that time and place through the rose-tinted spectacles of his childhood, but he is clearly nostalgic for a society that bound people together in solidarity, a society which he has left and can no longer access.     

Of course if Luke’s four beatitudes are about “us”, then the ensuing woes are about “them”, those who are rich, satisfied and laughing.. Those people back in the city concerned only with creating more wealth. Those people back in the religious buildings trying to persuade themselves that a particular form of worship is the gateway to finding God. Those people who separate themselves off from each other so that they can enjoy their wealth on their own. Those people who are incapable of working to build God’s Kingdom because they have lost sight of who God is and what that Kingdom might look like.

When read in this way this passage cuts through to life in twentieth century Britain doesn’t it. We have a divided society. A society in which more and more of God’s people are struggling to make ends meet – to both eat and heat, but also a society that is driven by the conceits of the wealthy and powerful. An elite that separate themselves off from the majority of the people. An elite that are incapable of working towards the coming of God’s Kingdom because they have lost sight of who God is and what that Kingdom might look like.

The beatitudes offer us a choice. We can align ourselves with the poor, the hungry and those who weep, or we can align ourselves with the rich, the satisfied and those who laugh. But they do more than offer us a choice, they tell us which choice we should make and why.

We should align ourselves with the poor, not because we admire their poverty, but because we know that they will recognise God’s Kingdom when they are encounter it. We should align ourselves with the hungry, not because hunger is good, but because of how we know they will savour food when it is provided. We should align ourselves with those who weep, not because we love tears, but because we long to bring laughter. Let’s take these thoughts into our next hymn “Community of Christ”,


The Church and Political Protest

On 18th August our church held a “pop-up” event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. It was inspired by an earlier celebration at Manchester Cathedral which had pointed out that committed Christians had been involved on both sides of the political divide at Peterloo. Many non-conformist Christians had been helped organsie the protest but there were prominent clergymen amongst the group of magistrates who ordered the troops to disperse the crowd. We thus had a session to explore whether and how individual Christians and the church as an institution should engage in political protest today. This started hearing from two Quakers who are involved in protests against the arms trade, a representative of Extinction Rebellion and a Methodist minister involved in opposing expressions of hate against minorities. After this we had a time of open discussion of the issues followed by an act of worship.

During the worship we read Luke 19:37-48, the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday and leading to him turning the table of the money-lenders in the courtyard of  the temple which led into this sermon.

Should Christians engage in political protest?

We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as a preacher and religious teacher that we often ignore his role as a prophet and political agitator. We sometimes consider him other-worldly, but much of his teaching reveals a very shrewd understanding of human nature and how the world works. He knew that the common people that he had grown up with were oppressed. The most obvious oppression was that coming from the Roman occupying forces, but Jesus also knew that within the local population the poor were oppressed by the rich. He was particularly saddened to see the many pharisees supporting this oppression either implicitly or explicitly. Much of his teaching, particularly through his parables, and many of his actions, make as much sense as political theory as they do as theology.

Let’s look at the story of Palm Sunday. We’ve heard this told so often in church services accompanied by children’s processions, the waving of palm branches and the singing of upbeat worship songs that we assume that this was originally a religious event. Jesus leads a procession into the city of Jerusalem from the east. It certainly had religious overtones, but it was also highly political. The only other person who would process through the city gates into Jerusalem was the Roman Governor accompanied by his troops.

It’s quite likely that the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was processing into the city from the west on that very day. Jerusalem always filled up with people at Passover. The crowds were generally peaceful but, just as the Magistrates at Peterloo considered it expedient to have over a thousand troops available just in case, so Pilate wanted troops who could disperse the crowd if necessary. In the lead up to the festival each year he would lead them into the city to remind the people who was in control. By staging an alternative procession into Jerusalem, Jesus was promoting himself as an alternative to Roman authority. His procession was no accident, Jesus had made elaborate plans (Luke 19:30) to ensure that a colt is available and that the demonstration would have maximum effective.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) sounds like a religious chant but it is first and foremost a political claim. If this is the King, then what authority does the Roman Governor or even Caesar himself have?

It’s for this reason perhaps that the pharisees rebuke Jesus (Luke 19:39). There was an uneasy coalition between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. If the Jewish leaders ensured that the people were peaceful and paid their taxes, then the Romans allowed them to continue in positions of power and influence. The Pharisees are trying to hush Jesus and his followers up. “Keep quiet”, they are saying, “don’t you realise what trouble you could get into, and get us into”.

Jesus reply? ”I tell you if we keep quiet the very stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40). The signs of oppression and injustice are so clear that it doesn’t really matter whether we draw attention to them or not. This recognition drives him to tears (Luke 19:41). He weeps for a society that cannot even see the way to peace through justice and is destined for destruction as predicted by prophets like Amos (e.g. Amos 8:1-8).

Following his entry into the city he proceeds further to the Temple. He’s been there before. He knows what to expect. Although the Jewish authorities know that the Temple should be a house of prayer, he knows that they tolerate the money lenders as long as they are given a share of the profits. His actions are not an impulsive outrage at a surprising finding, they are pre-planned to create maximum effect in a response to a situation he knows he is going to encounter.

Although the procession appears to be in defiance of the Roman authorities and the turned tables were those of the money lenders, both protests are effectively against the Jewish authorities and their complicity with power (the Romans) and money (the money lenders). The Romans and money lenders didn’t, or couldn’t, know better but the Jewish authorities, so well versed in the Torah and words of the prophets, were guilty of ignoring both.

Jesus realised that imposing a solution with force could never work. The Romans imposed peace, and did it very effectively, but that imposed peace had a huge human and financial cost and could only last for as long as the force was there to impose it. Jesus advocated God’s peace, a peace that would last forever. That is only possible if it arises out of the people’s desire for justice.

Jesus’ chose particular actions not because they were likely to be effective in themselves. He knew that a small group of unarmed Galileans led by a man sitting on a donkey was no match for the might of Rome. He knew that upturned tables could be replaced almost immediately. Instead he wanted the people who saw what he was doing to start questioning what they regarded as inevitable and unchangeable. He wanted them to be incensed by the injustice of what was being imposed on them by the forces of power and wealth. He wanted them to first glimpse, then desire and then work for the peace that comes through justice rather than the sword.

So if you ask me, “Should Christians become involved in political protest”, I will answer with an unequivocal “yes”. Jesus planned and executed political protests himself, he showed us how to do it, he wrote the rule book. If we are called to follow Jesus then we should be following both his political agitation as well as his religious teachings. The question for me is not so much “if?” but “how?” and “when?”. It’s this that we’ve been tussling with earlier in the afternoon and that I hope we’ll pray about in the rest of the service.


Baptism as a political statement

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of baptism of Jesus from Luke’s gospel (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22).  Three of the gospels tell of Jesus being baptised but one misses out, anyone know which one?

You might be surprised to hear that Jesus’ baptism is not explicitly mentioned in John’s gospel. You probably think, “of course it is, John saw the spirit descending in the form of a dove and recognised Jesus as the Lamb of God”. If you read the text carefully, however, you’ll find no mention of any baptism. Yes, Jesus goes to visit John where he is baptising people in the Jordan. Yes, Jesus, meets John. Yes, John recognises Jesus as the Messiah. Yes, John proclaims this to the crowd, but there is no mention of John baptising Jesus. Because the story is told by the other gospel writers, we tend to assume that John records it as well. If you read the text carefully, however, it’s missed out. Why?

Well it could be because John just forgot to mention it, or because he thought his readership knew the story so well that he didn’t have to mention it, or because he thought other aspects of the story were more important. But there is another explanation. John thought that God was within Jesus from his very birth, in fact before that birth, “In the beginning the word already existed and the word was with God and the word was God” (John 1:1).

John the Baptism baptised people who repented of their sins and to restore their relationship with God. But Jesus was God and had always been God. How could he have sinned and how could he need his relationship with God to be restored? John, the gospel writer, has left Jesus’ baptism out of his story intentionally, it doesn’t fit with his view of who Jesus was and of his relationship to God. This theory is further confirmed by his omission of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If Jesus is God how can he be tempted by the devil, or anyone else?

The more interesting question, given that most modern-day Christians accept John’s view of who Jesus was, is not why did John leave the story of Jesus’ baptism out but why Matthew, Mark and Luke included it?

It tells us that the writers of these three gospels saw Jesus differently. Biblical scholars think that John’s gospel was written later than the other three, probably 20 to 30 years later. During that time the way that the early church thought about Jesus and God  changed and this is reflected in how John tells the story differently to the other three. Indeed, if you look at the other three gospels, they all tell their stories differently to reflect their individual views of exactly who God was. Just as around this congregation different individuals have a different understanding of  who God is and who Jesus is, so that is reflected in the heart of our Bible. The four gospels all present somewhat different understandings of who Jesus was and is, but are still united in proclaiming Jesus as Lord. It’s a model for how those Christians today can relate to each other despite having different views. Depsite those different views we can still see God working in each other and come together jointly to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

Luke and Mark, and to a lesser extent Matthew, consider the political significance of Jesus baltism as more important than did John (who focussed on his spiritual significance). Baptism to them was not just a spiritual act it was also a political act.

People in Palestine in the first century lived in a domination system. Society was extremely hierarchical with the rich people at the top, poor people in the middle and a large underclass of outcasts, the disabled, beggars, prostitutes, lepers who had no place in society at all. This structure was enforced primarily by economic power. The poor people had to work so hard merely to survive that they had no time or opportunity to even think about any alternative, let alone revolt. Without any safety net those who had a little money feared they would be demoted to absolute poverty if they didn’t play their part in the system.

This was bad enough within the Jewish society but the system was made much worse by the Roman invasion. The Roman Empire was the ultimate hierarchy with the Emperor at the top and everyone else in a series of layers below him down to the slaves who had no rights whatsoever. This structure did not just depend on economic power however, it was reinforced with brutal violence. Crucifixion was a particularly painful method of execution which was reserved for revolutionaries and those who defied the political system.

John the Baptist, and others at the time, saw that this domination system was not what God wanted. The books of the Jewish law lay out an economic structure that ensures that God’s gifts are shared amongst his people. If economic imbalances develop over time they are corrected in a year of jubilee. All people were deemed equal in the eyes of God. John did not want to be part of the domination system and separated himself from it by going and living in the desert and surviving on what little food the desert had to provide, locusts and honey. That was a subversive step. John was saying, “You do not need to be part of this domination system, there is an alternative, you can live by God’s law instead”. This was really dangerous because those who had wealth and power depended for that wealth and power on those below them in the domination system accepting that system and their place in it. John was a dangerous revolutionary and would pay for this a little later with his life.

Baptism has been referred to from very early times as a sacrament, from the Latin word sacramentum, but does anyone know what the original meaning of the word was? The sacramentum was the oath of allegiance that a Roman Soldier took when he joined the Roman Army. It was an oath of allegiance to the Emperor and, effectively, to the domination system that he represented.

In undertaking the sacrament of baptism people were stating their allegiance to a different authority, the authority of God. Baptism was a seditious act that signified a rejection of the domination system. Today we think of repentance as referring to turning from our past way of life as individuals, but to John the Baptism it almost certainly also referred to turning from our past way of living as a society. This is brought to full fruition in Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor gentile, freeman or slave (Galatians 3:28). We need to step outside a domination system based upon exploitation and see everyone as equal in the eyes of God and united by love.

Against this understanding, Jesus’ baptism makes perfect sense. Jesus wanted to make a statement that he too objected to the domination system, that he too had read the Torah and that he too recognised that God’s intended Kingdom was very different from how the world was functioning. It was the Kingdom that Mary foresaw when she sang the Magnificat, as recorded by Luke:

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors,
and has come to the help of his servant Israel.

Luke 1:52-54

Through his baptism, Jesus’ ministry starts with a statement of political as well as spiritual intent.

But baptism isn’t just a statement of intent it is also an embodiment of the methods for achieving change. When the Roman soldier took his sacramentum he did so in full armour, in front of his commanding officer who signified the full might of the Roman empire. His role was to uphold the empire through power and violence. When people where baptised they stripped off and entered a river to be baptised by a man clothed only in camel’s skin secured by a leather belt. God’s kingdom cannot be entered by violence and power but by rejecting violence and making ourselves vulnerable.

What can be more symbolic of that offer of our vulnerability than to be lowered backwards into water trusting only on the baptiser to support us and restore us to life? I can think of only one thing and that is of an innocent man allowing himself to be crucified.

Jesus’ baptism is a powerful statement that not only can the world be different, but that it will be made different by our making ourselves vulnerable through the giving of love sacrificially and non-violently.

We’ll explore how these ideas might affect our lives today in our prayers, but I wanted to think of an illustration of this and will leave you with a video clip from the film Gandhi. The British Empire in India was a domination system similar in some ways to the Roman occupation of Palestine. One way the British exerted power was to control the supply of salt. The Indians were taxed heavily for making their own salt and forced to buy it at inflated prices. In the past the Indians had made their own salt from sea-water but the British deemed this illegal and enforced the law with violence. In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the sea to start making salt again. He was arrested but his followers continued to march to the old salt-works …

As the reporter said, “Whatever moral ascendancy the West has held was lost here today”. India gained her freedom when those ordinary Indians rejected the system that the British had imposed upon them, when they offered up their vulnerability to the violence of their oppressors. So too our freedom has been gained when Jesus rejected the system within which he lived and and offered up his vulnerability to the violence of his oppressors. Let us give thanks for his self-sacrifice and let us seek the courage to follow it.

This sermon has been inspired be reading Alan Street’s book, Caesar and the Sacrament – Baptism: a Rite of Resistance.

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?


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.



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.


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


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


“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.