Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018
The Faith of the Church
in an age of Personal Faith
At a recent forum, the following question was put to a panel of priests in the Anglican Church, ‘What is your faith?’ What struck me as odd, and which disturbs me all the more, the more I think of it is this, that no one seemed to think it an odd question to put. Indeed it may be that we don’t think it an odd question to put to a priest, indeed anyone baptised into the Church . . . after all, we all have our own personal faith. Some things we choose to believe and some we choose not to, and that is ‘my faith’
We live in an age dominated by the idea that we can choose. To be free to choose is the ‘supreme good’ which we have been trained to worship. The Supermarket with its array of over 150 types of cereals, represents the Cosmos to us, it is our Temple – it places Me the shopper at the very Centre of my own personal Universe of choice, wherein we cry Glory!
Choosing tells us who we are – ‘I choose therefore I am’, and this choosing reaches even unto the most personal matters of my life, indeed of my faith. We not only shop for cereal, we even shop for churches. Is the music to my taste? What of the style of the building? Comfortable chairs or ‘traditional pews’? Is the Vicar nice? Modern emotionally moving songs with a band and a good drummer, or meaningful hymns with a robed choir and aesthetic sensibilities. The choice is yours and as to what you believe . . . If of course your Personal faith includes church going. It may be that in your faith that isn’t necessary. And who is to argue with that! Faith is after all ‘just my opinion’ – Faith on the terms you set.
We live in the Age where ‘The Consumer is King’ failing to recognise that we think this precisely because we have been trained to think that way, that we are at the centre of things with power to choose . . . Yet, Life is not something we choose – it is a Gift, not least manifested in the fact that the very thing that makes us most truly who we are, our parentage, place time of birth . . . these are things we have no choice over – yet they truly make us who we are – something we had no choice over whatsoever. Life is a Gift We are Born into it – and that is the truth of Our Faith
The Israelites cried out in their slavery and oppression in Egypt – and their cry was heard by this strange God who came and rescued them and determined that they would be his people, they would be his children, He trained and taught them his ways . . . and so we must hear the words of Jesus ‘You did not choose me, I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear lasting fruit’ . . . Our Faith – Our Life is spoken to us by Jesus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the Dark. In the Dark about Jesus. He was if you like in the womb of Faith – He thought it was all about his understanding Jesus, about his capacity to grasp what Jesus was on about, but Jesus doesn’t clarify things for Nicodemus, rather he seems to confuse him . . .
it is hardly surprising that often coming upon the Church of Jesus Christ, people are confused . . . for it is not about us grasping faith, it is about Faith grasping us!
You Must be born again! Unless a man be born again he cannot See the Kingdom of God! And Nicodemus at least gets the point that this is something outside his control – ‘but how can a man be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus points him to the New Birth – the Work of God in Saving you from your own personal Egypt – , ‘you must be born from above, born of The Spirit’ The Wind blows wherever IT chooses . . . So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, they didn’t choose . . . It isn’t down to you . . . The Wond blew towards YOU, and you were caught up in this Life, this Faith – – – and this is deeply troubling to us who are children of the age of choice and being at the Centre of things . . .
. . . and how much more troubling that none of the priests who were asked the question ‘What is your faith?’ answered ‘the faith into which I was baptised, the Faith to which I assented at my ordination, the Faith of the Church which confesses The One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit as he has made himself known to the Church, which is the Spirit breathed Body of His Son, Jesus Christ, and as set forth in the ecumenical creeds of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church in which by Grace and through no dessert of my own, I have been included’
A faith which displaces us from the centre, the faith in the God who reveals himself to Isaiah in the Temple – a revealed faith, given to us. A Sacred deposit – not to be tampered with according to our tastes or our moods and whims, according to the Spirit of the Age, but rather a faith which we are called upon to declare afresh to every generation, Faith in the One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
This is the faith of the Church – it is the Faith into which each one of us was baptised – it is what makes us The Church, that community not ‘stuck in the past’ as some would have it, or ‘chasing to keep up with the modern world’, but Like a Tree Rooted, by a Stream, not the stream of history, but the Living Water of Eternity. We are a people Rooted in the Eternal God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. This God is our Life. We exist through Him and for Him. We worship only Him. This is Our Faith, flowing down from the Apostles and prophets
The Faith of the Church – Yet still a Personal faith – just not how we think of personal – and a Personal God – just not how we think of Personal . . .
I remember when God finally got hold of me and that faith into which I had been baptised suddenly sprang to life, through no doing of my own . . . what I noticed was how unbidden the cry of my heart instantly became ‘Father!’ It was to be several years before I noticed what St Paul had written ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’
Since then that cry arising within me from where I do not know, has been at times a reminder of whose child I am, and at times when I have to my everlasting shame strayed from Him, its absence has been a sharp reminder of my true identity and my loss of direction. I remember once, stumbling terribly, the memory haunts me, and realising that that cry had fallen silent, yet in response to its absence, I cried with my own voice, but it wasn’t the same until finally being found once more and taken hold of by the Father
You see it is Personal, Deeply personal – it is an encounter with the Divine Three Personed God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be baptised into the Faith is to be baptised into the very Life of God, and it is no light thing, and nothing we would choose! See! Behold the response of Isaiah in the Temp
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Who in their right minds would choose that!!
This is no carefully and comfortably, made to measure faith – we don’t get to make God up, which is to some a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Why can’t I choose the god whom I serve? Why can’t I make up a creed which suits me? And of course the answer is that nothing is stopping you, and you may have a ready answer to that question, what is your faith? But this is not The One who makes himself known to us in and through Jesus, and His body, The Church
Our Creeds set out this three personned God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every time we recite them we are reminding ourselves of The Personal Faith of The Church as carefully handed down form generation to Generation, the faith of the apostles and prophets, the Spirit breathed, Christ embodied Faith in God . . .
We all indeed may have difficulties with this faith – we are the people of God, and we are notorious for chafing at his gentle yoke, for grumbling that He doesn’t fit what we would look for in a god catalogue, but He is not a god amongst many, He is not the god of the cereal aisles – He is the One whose voice breaks the cedars;
even the cedars of Lebanon.
making Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
flashing forth flames of fire.
shaking the wilderness;
even the wilderness of Kadesh.
causing the oaks to whirl,
and stripping the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’ And all fall on their faces and worship
Our Faith, that is The Faith of the Church SHOULD disturb, for it is not about us. From time to time, perhaps even on a daily basis we will find one person or another of the Trinity troublesome to our prideful discrimination, failing to live up to what we look for in ‘a Modern god’. (conveniently forgetting that what is today Modern is tomorrow passé and out of date.)
As I have reflected on this myself, surprisingly I found that it was the Son, Jesus himself whom I find most difficult . . . I remember a priest once complaining that the words of Jesus ‘doesn’t sound like my Jesus’ and perhaps that is true of us all, that when God faces us in Jesus he doesn’t fit our agendas. That Jesus the social revolutionary, whose attitude towards women overturned so much, still ‘blind to the Patriarchy’ called us to baptise in the name of The Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . Jesus troubles me still – many of his words I’d rather not hear .’loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you’
We can’t let Jesus be who he is, and still have our own faith – that is why they killed him, they wanted a faith of their own making – happy to carve yet another golden calf . . .
but The God raised him up and so still He disturbs us – even now we have to stand before him as did Nicodemus in our Bewilderment, and either flee and decide on a faith of our own which will perish with us, or fall before Him as The Son whom the Father has sent into the World, not to condemn the World, but that the World might be saved through Him, freely giving the Spirit to raise us to all who call upon the Name of the Lord.
‘when they heard this, they were cut to the heart’ Acts 2:37
That wise old sage, GK Chesterton once observed, ‘it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, rather it is that has been found too hard and so not tried’
We tend to think he may be overstating it, but did not Jesus say ‘ ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Matt 7:13-14 Suffice to say the words of Jesus mean little to us in these days of our ease . . .
As we have explored through Lent and on through the season of Easter, the seasons of the Church year are given that we might follow Jesus. Not admire him from a distance, but follow him where he goes. When we hear sermons on this topic we tent to romanticise this and ignore the literal command of Jesus – ‘follow me’ – where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus has if you will, disappeared from the scene, taken from the sight of the disciples, but in strict obedience to him, they have waited in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit has been poured out on them.
As I said this morning, Pentecost is perhaps in Truth, the Easter of the Church. That is it is the Day when the people of God, following Jesus are raised from the dead. To use Paul’s language ‘you were once dead in your sins and trespasses, but God has made you alive in Christ’ Eph 2:1,5-6
So We might ask, what of us?? Why do we not see these things?? Perhaps the answer is that the Way of Jesus is too hard. For to know the Resurrection, one must have died and descended to the dead, as The Apostles Creed teaches us.
Jesus dies on the Cross – He tells us that we too must die to ourselves – he then visits Hell, and harrows it . . . but do we follow him there, or do we merely wait for Him to return?
One of the very few who have followed the hard and narrow way that leads to life, who have followed Christ into Hell, is the Russian Writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (Other examples I could name are also Russian, it is a hard land 🙂 ) Solzhenitsyn went to Hell and came to life as a Christian, quite literally
He was in his younger years an enthusiastic party member, a Communist, so when Hitler invaded his country, he joined up to ‘fight tyranny’, not realising that the tyranny he was fighting was more than mirrored by the bloody regime he fought for . . . always beware of ‘righteous causes’. The inexorable logic of the Marxists (copied by Capitalists . . .) sought to purge the state by killing the ‘class enemies’. Eventually, having killed the middle classes and the farmers who made a decent fist of things, the beast started to eat itself, and party members were accused and sent to the death camps, the Gulags. Slave camps where people were worked to death, in their tens of millions ( story of which most of us live in ignorance of ).
Of course Solzhenitsyn was at first shocked, after all, he had been a good party member and played by the rules – in his own eyes a good man and now being oppressed by the very system he had supported. He could easily slipped into resentment and hatred. Broad and easy is the way – after all, didn’t he have a right to be angry with ‘those people’? Instead he chose the hard and narrow way.
He undertook a fearless moral inventory. He went back over his entire life with a fine tooth comb, exposed everything to the light, and what he found there at first terrified him, but later became the source of his Wisdom. He realised that he was every bit as bad as those who had sent him there. He realised that radical evil flows not through particular people, it flowed through the veins of every human being. He had been in ignorance, supposing the troubles of the world were ‘those people’ – he found the very source of Hell was within himself.
Yet, thus exposed to the Light and the Truth of himself, he faced the Light, rather than fleeing it – he found a New Life, a previously unimaginable capacity. He could look even on the camp guards with Love and Compassion, for in them he saw himself as he had been. The one who looks with judgement on others, has either not known the truth of himself, or else has forgotten it, and lost that gift of Life
For one must NOT forget . . . One would think that Solzhenytsyn, having got out of the Gulag alive, in the fullest sense would have rejoiced to see the back of it – yet that isn’t his story. He carried it with him, again quite literally. For several years in the Gulag his bed had been a rough wooden cot made of old package cases – on leaving the Gulag he finally exposed the story of the Hell of ideological Marxism writing his famous work, the Gulag Archipelago. In several respects this book played a significant role in deromanticising the Left in the eyes of many in the West, and to the very end of Communism. He went to live in America and was much in demand as a speaker, giving a famous commencement address at Harvard University . . . yet the Gulag went with him. To the day he died, he slept in that same wooden cot. Its lesson was too precious to him. It was through Hell, that he had discovered Heaven. The cot a constant reminder of the Strange Gift of the Gulag
Solzhenitsyn had been resurrected. And it was no surprise that he became a Christian . . . for that is the path to becoming a Christian, it is to Know that Hell is not as Sartre puts it, ‘other people’, it is much closer than that – it is to realise that Hell lies within us – and turn in Hope to the healer, the one who has gone before and reveals the way out. It was as Carl Jung suggests, ‘that which you most truly desire is in the place you least want to go’
Of course, realising that which is within us may not lead to repentance and resurrection if we are turned in on ourselves, if we chose the path of bitterness and despair, rather than that of facing our truth. In the time between the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Judas chose that route, but Peter did not
And so having gone into Hell, it is the resurrected Peter who addresses the crowds on the Day of Pentecost and His bright Light illumined message opened wide his hearers who ‘were cut to the heart’ – the evil of their heart laid bare.
‘let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’
The evil of their hearts was laid bare – subjected to the dazzling brilliance of Truth and Light. From the darkness of death they cried out ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ and Peter replied ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
Repent . . . ‘turn away from your wickedness – turn towards the Brilliant light which has exposed you, for it is the Burning Sun of the Love of God which forgives yes, even you, for He has forgiven Me! Take your place with St Paul who also knows himself to be ‘the chief of sinners’ – and you will receive the Life beyond all human hope – the Very Life of God himself – The Holy Spirit, the Life which death itself is powerless to contain.
Like the Gulag for Solzhenitsyn, the Resurrection of Pentecost is a Strange and disturbing gift. Tongues of flame – burning truth in preaching from these unlearned Galileans.
We are faced with a question we never thought of – ‘do you wish to be raised from the dead? Is the Truth something to be fled from in the sleep of death, or faced in all its burning and healing Light?
These Strange Gifts come to us in strange readings. This morning we heard of the vision of Ezekiel – of the valley of dry bones and the question of the LORD – ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ A vision of a people coming to life beyond all human hope – a people who were saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Would they want to . . .
Tonight we hear from the same prophet, the Word of the LORD – ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ It is that promise of Resurrection, for all those who have followed Jesus into the place where in human terms all hope is cut off, into Hell . . . we may well ask, why do we not see the promise of the Father? Is it because in truth we do not want to?
Is not this us? Beyond Hope? Perhaps we need to take Jesus at his word and follow him.
Seek the Light which exposes the heart – dare to face the Light and the Truth – and you shall be saved . . .
Awaiting The Resurrection of the people of God
At Easter, reflecting on the experience of the women at the tomb who ‘fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ we were reminded that the Resurrection of Jesus dismantles, shatters and devastates all our ways of understanding the world in which we believe we live. But we should be very careful of merely reflecting, of pondering and wondering, of casual day dreaming . . . before we, getting on with our lives, before getting back to what we have become accustomed to calling ‘the real world’, and move onto the next thing. Of course we are quick to dismiss the Resurrection of Jesus, to infantilize it into a vague wish for the future and ‘a better world’ for it calls into question nothing less than our very existence
Rather we need to sit with it, to Wait on this Word of life which was from the beginning – to ask, ‘what does this mean?’ – to allow it to do its work in us. This isn’t our work – it is God’s work and we must allow that space, or ignore the Resurrection, to our eternal loss. And we have been commanded to this waiting.
Last week we considered the Lord’s command to us, to Wait! To Wait for the promise of the Father – to stay put, until we were clothed with power from on high and in the Church Year we see what happens when we are thus obedient to the LORD – the Day of Pentecost – a Day equally marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment
‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.
Only the most casual amongst us would pretend that we understand what this means . . . indeed if we dare face the Truth, we find ourselves not amongst the disciple community, but in and amongst the crowds. Even we who unthinkingly bear the name of Christ find this beyond our Knowledge . . .
We are in the crowds who see this disciple community, declaring the mighty acts of God, each of us hearing it without any need of translation, and with the crowd we ask ’What does this mean?’
Perhaps the greatest distortion of the Christian message is to transform it into something about ‘what happens when we die’. In a sense it is, but not in the sense we have comfortably taken into our lives. Treating out faith as a pass for a nice future ‘after this life’ causes us to dismiss it entirely – it is literally a ‘grave’ deception.
If we truly seek an answer to the question ‘what does this mean’? We must go with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and allow the Risen Christ to ‘open [our] minds to understand the scriptures’. We by baptism the people of God, have been given the Scriptures that we might know what this means. How quick we are to turn to anything except the Scriptures to come us with an explanation for ‘these things that have happened’ Perhaps we find the question all but impossible to answer from the Scriptures, for they like these things that have happened are alien to ‘life in the real world’
Of course if we are to turn to the Scriptures, we must of course first recognise who we are, the people of God, baptised into His name. That apart form Him we can do nothing, that apart from what he reveals we know nothing. That the Scriptures are not just ‘another source of wisdom we can dwell on,’ but that they are God’s gift, they are our very life support. For the answer to the question, ‘what does this mean?’ is found in the Scriptures, over and over again.
We might say, well Peter explains from the prophet Joel . . . as we have heard so many times, and become accustomed to it, yet not questioned why this Pentecost outpouring is so alien to ‘our own lives’ – so perhaps another Scripture might wake us once more. And here we come to our OT reading from Ezekiel. ‘What does this mean’?
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ Before we respond from either naive acquaintance ‘Yes of Course!, or from the cave of ‘life in the real world’ ‘no’ – we ought to pause – If the strangeness of Easter and Pentecost has taught us anything, at the very least it ought to teach us humility in the face of existence – so perhaps in humility we may respond with the Son of Man – ‘O Lord God, you know.’
Why the dry bones? What are they? Who are they? ‘Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
We are cut off completely. We have been captivated, enthralled, literally been enslaved by the lives we have made for ourselves, lives which can only wither for their source is in themselves. They are not trees by streams drawing life from beyond them. Indeed perhaps in this age unlike no other we have lost sense of life beyond us which we may draw upon
Who are they? As we have pondered often, what do we see of the church in these days? Would we not also cry out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
It is of note that this reading is used in the Easter dawn vigil – as we wait on the resurrection of Jesus ‘early on the first day of the week’, for it concerns mot the resurrection f an individual, but that of a whole people . . . what is the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the King of God’s people the Jews, if it is not the Resurrection of the whole people?
They lie in the dust of death, through ‘ignorance and unbelief’ – choosing ‘life on their own terms’ they have not listened to the voice of the one who addresses them from heaven, that Life, and so they are dead. Dead in trespasses and sin.
‘But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive – together with Christ’
The disciples Wait – because they know they are dead in trespasses and sin. Dry bones do not live of their own accord – they must Wait!
There is a clue to this in what we have come to call Jesus’ restoration of Peter. Actually it is better to call it Jesus confronting Peter with his sin. Why is Peter distressed because jesus asked him the third times ‘do you love me?’ because Jesus is confronting him with his sin. Peter wants to forget, wants to think that it never happened, that he really can do it on his own, if only he is given a second chance. Jesus reveals to him that he cannot. It is the Word of Jesus to Peter – so he has nothing but the command of Jesus to rest on now, to Wait till Life comes ‘from above’, till he is norm again. That Life is the source of the tongues of flame, of the proclamation of the mighty acts of God, and of Peter’s boldness in preaching, in answering the question ‘what does this mean?’ because he himself has known what it is to be raised from the Dead. He has been there, and the Lord has lifted him up
This is the meaning of these things – the disciple community, knowing themselves to have no hope apart from Christ, knowing themselves to be dead in trespasses and sin, began the journey of obedience, Waiting for the promise of the Father, and God made them alive – together with Christ. Easter and Pentecost are one. Jesus the Obedient one is raised to life in triumph, so to his people – those who show themselves to be his people by Waiting on him
Here is the dilemma we face. A problem created by the Church year – which is a gift, but can be a hindrance. For if we are not careful, we will just move on, in part we will listen to the voice which sees the Apostles clothes in power and subtly suggests, ‘move along, nothing to see here. this is nothing to do with you . . .’
But if we are the people of God, then it is EVERYTHING to do with us.
Maybe it is precisely because this Day of Pentecost is such a day marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment, demolishing our impoverished way of understanding, that we move so swiftly on . . .
May we be a people who WAIT. Wait like Lazarus for that voice that calls us from beyond ourselves and our the live we have made for ourselves, that calls us out of the illusion we have come to call ‘The Real World’, which is never more than our vain imaginings . . May we be a people who Know that apart from that Word we can do nothing. May we like Peter Know our condition and wait for the voice until it summons us forth until it Raises us.
The Voice of Jesus to Lazarus is also the voice of Jesus to all those called by His name in this day. A Loud Voice crying out to us from beyond the grave, the sleep of death which is the life we have made for ourselves, summoning us to something beyond our understanding, a world where Christ is all and is in all.
Sermon for Evensong – Sunday March 18th, 2017
‘Harden not your hearts’
As today is Passion Sunday, it is worth reminding ourselves of some words of Jesus from the cross – ‘Father, forgive them, for they now not what they do’, a saying which is echoed in our confession, ‘we have sinned in ignorance’. The reality is that we have very little idea about anything. The world is complex and subtle far beyond our imaginings. The people we live amongst, even those we think we know well, are profound mysteries to us. Not one of us has the remotest inkling what it is like to be another person, let alone a tree, or a dog, or a stone. We are phenomenally ignorant, which goes some way to explain the state of the world we inhabit – the metaphor ‘bull in a china chop’ always seems appropriate as we consider the Creation and our place in it. Strangely in an age when in a sense human knowledge has expanded hugely, it is as if this has got worse not better. The illusion that ‘we know better nowadays’ is not born out in the world as it is. Modern humans are more out of balance with the Creation than in any age in history. We know very little of what seems to matter to our very existence.
This is why the Scriptures are full of warnings. A very few, like the commandments, are explicit and clear – murdering or committing adultery, lying or failing to rest – live like this and things will turn out bad for you. But most of life is complicated beyond our capacity to comprehend, and so the Scriptures weave their deeper warnings into story – for in a sense that is precisely what we live in, Story. Reading the human story in Scripture teaches us who we are and where we are and how we should then live.
One example of these warnings is ‘beware of those things which ‘look pleasant to the eye’’ – or ‘you are not very good at judging what is good and what is not!, so learn a deeper discrimination’
So Eve ‘seeing that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, took of its fruit and ate’ . . . She saw, she grasped and she would not let go . . . and it did not turn out well
Again there is a moment in the story of Abraham where his herdsmen are falling out with the herdsmen of his nephew Lot and so they separate and Abraham gives Lot the choice of where to go – ‘Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards’ Despite finding himself in a short space of time in a war zone in which he and his family are taken captive and require to be rescued by Abraham, he continues to ‘sojourn in Sodom’ He sees, he grasps, and he won’t let go, and at the last when Sodom is destroyed, Lot’s wife cannot let go of this Dark place and is turned to a pillar of Salt.
Warning – beware of your ability to see well – do not grasp – choose wisely – and learn to let things go . . .
Well this evening’s Old Testament reading carries a serious warning to the one who listens, ‘who listen to the voice of the LORD’ Ps 95:8 What is the story trying to tell us, if we have ears to hear.
Pharaoh is in his own eyes ‘Lord of all he surveys’ – it is all HIs – he Possesses it and that includes the Israelites whom he has enslaved – they are his property. So when Moses and Aaron come before him with a request to ‘let go of the thing he has grasped’ he dismisses them. He will not let go and through the ensuing plagues of which we heard a little, earlier, he grasps tighter and tighter.
As the story tells us – ‘he hardened his heart’ – and Here is a very severe warning here.
If we are alert to the narrative as it goes on, repeatedly we hear ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . .’ It is strange that often people will not let go of something which is harming them – and the greater the harm the more we might hold on . . . it may only be a small thing – a harboured resentment perhaps, but we can all too easily cling to such a thing and its power for evil grows and grows. This is one manifestation of what the scriptures call ‘the demonic’, for all to often such things literally take on a life of their own. They become ‘the desire of our heart’
Indeed we may be able to trace something of it within our own hearts. Bitterness, greed, resentment, deception, a grudge . . . these things which we think we control, have control of us – or to use a much maligned word, Sin reigns . . . and like grasping things – it doesn’t lead us to a good place. We’ll return to Sin in a few moments, but first we need to unpack the Dire warning in the story of Pharaoh which is this
As we follow the narrative through the gradually increasing plagues we read over and over ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ but towards the end there is a terrifying change. First we read that Pharaoh hardened his [own] heart. That is it became conscious for him – to put it in the explicit and terrifyingly accurate vernacular, he says in his heart ‘I’ll be damned if I let them go . . .’
We might say that at this point, what was unconscious, knowing not what he did, became a conscious decision. After the next plague we read ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ In other words there is nothing he can now do to reverse things, his heart is ‘set as stone’ . . . and so to the denouement in Genesis 9:12 – following the plague of boils – ‘But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .’ God gives us the true desire of our heart . . . the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . . Pharaoh will not let go and goes deeper into corruption until it is revealed that that is what he truly wants and seals the wish of Pharaoh’s heart This is one of the most terrifying verses in the Scripture . . .
As Dante sees the souls bound for perdition he sees that they curse God – no longer might they cry for mercy for they are intractably bound to that which they will not let go. It has become for them a consuming passion and leads only to death . . . and the LORD hardens their hearts. Or as CS Lewis puts it – ‘Hell is locked on the inside . . .’
So Pharaoh in all his wealth and power is set before us as a grave warning . . . What is the remedy?
BUT GOD . . . As we read in St Paul’s letter to the Romans – a remedy for Sin has been provided, in that God in Jesus, While we were yet ‘dead in sins and trespasses’ died for us . . . Paul goes on to explain how though through one man, Adam, Sin entered the world, by the death of one Man, Jesus Christ, Grace, forgiveness and righteousness abounded to many. Miracle of miracles – that which brought death to us, Sin, is overturned and Death becomes the Gate of Life . . .
So, then we might say – why worry about the story of Pharaoh? ‘if it all turns out right in the end’? This was what Paul was accused of preaching ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in Sin that Grace may abound? By No Means! How shall we who have died to Sin live any longer in it . . .
This is the clear teaching of Jesus. in John’s gospel, twice Jesus heals and forgives and then warns the person – ‘leave your life of Sin’ – or ‘stop sining or something worse will happen to you . . .’
It is a very false reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – to say that because Jesus died, the overwhelming love of God is revealed – and so sin no longer matters . . . but this is a fools paradise. One moments reflection on the Hell of so much of the world, and perhaps the Hell of our own hearts reveals that this is not so. Sin, like the bull in the China shop, does untold, often irreparable damage. Rather we look to what it cost God in Christ to save us from our Sin, to save us from ourselves and we resolutely set out, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, strengthening, encouraging ud, driving us forward, Comforting us in the true sense – no longer to live in Sin. We do not look back. We let go.
This failure to respond to the Saving Love of God is laid out for us in the Old Testament as well as the new. God in his Love and Mercy for Israel, rescues them from slavery in Egypt. From wretchedness and Hell – and brings them out into the wilderness that there they might learn of Life – rather like young children – having to learn that which leads to life and that which does not. ‘Eat Well!’ ‘Don’t put your hand in the fire!’ ‘Seek the Good everywhere and always,!’ ‘Shun that which is evil . . . ‘but they, although they had been the recipients of such a great Salvation, such a rescue, start to whine and complain and also harden their hearts and so do not enter the promised land . . . St Paul says ‘all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition upon whom the end of the ages has come’
So the psalmist having given glory to God – ‘Come let us sing unto the Lord . . . ‘ goes on
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’
Today – Hear his voice – harden not your hearts – for God in Christ approaches his Passion – to die for the Sin of the World, to bear its consequences, that Grace may abound.
Let us not neglect so great a salvation – rather let us set our hearts and minds on God’s Goodness revealed, reach out to take hold of THAT – and let go of al that would hinder us
Sermon for Advent 3 – Year B – 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
‘Where are you from?’ This is a question which most of us are asked at one time or another, not least if you have a ‘foreign’ accent! The other day Sarah and I were in a local shop and the owner, who was obviously English asked us this question and we took great delight in replying ‘Roslyn’ 🙂
Of course it is in a sense a not entirely truthful answer, perhaps we ought to have said, from England, but then the more you think about it, the more we realise that ‘where are you from?’ is a very deep question – a question that ought to give us pause. Like the polite enquiry, ‘how are you?’, it requires a deeper more significant answer than we often give it . . .
Of course in a sense here in New Zealand we might be aware of a sense that there is a deeper answer, for Tangata Whenua introduce themselves in deep terms of who they are in terms of where they come from, my mountain, my river, my waka, my iwi, my whanau – a sense of ‘coming from’ or having our roots in a much bigger story than ‘where I live at the moment’, a sense of coming out from a river of human history that has a source in the deep past – a way of self understanding that is almost diametrically opposed to our Modern way of understanding, where a little like the Prodigal Son our roots are something we put little store by, where we come from is a place we are trying to get away from, to forget our Home, our Source – trying to ‘make a life for ourselves . . .’ Where are you from?
Advent, a season of preparation to receive one who is coming to us – but from Where . . . ?
When Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, who is growing increasingly panicked by the crowd but also by the silence of this Galilean prophet, he asks in his anxiety, ‘Where are you from?’ It is as if he sees something in Jesus which suggests that Jesus is ‘not from around here’ . . . and so it is with the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord whom we remember on this 3rd Sunday of the season. John, John the Baptist we are introduced to him as one sent ahead . . . but from where??
Mark in his gospel, a gospel which as Bishop Steven said last week is abrupt – it pulls us up – it lacks the niceties of the other gospels – Mark introduces John thus ‘John . . . appeared in the wilderness . . .’ Just like that! It’s as if he just pops into existence – where are you from John?
But our own John, the Evangelist gives us an answer to that question ‘There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John . . .’ This question, where are you from which is so significant to our identity is one which John answers unequivocally for his namesake – John the Forerunner is ‘sent from God’ He comes from God
A couple of weeks ago I asked if we realised where we were? If we had a sense of our place in the Creation – how we fitted in – how our existence was woven into the life of the trees and the birds. Certainly on the whole, to be a Modern person is to have lost that sense. Just in the way we move around so freely, the very idea of Home is one which is disappearing from our senses. Home of course is one way of answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ – but where is Home?
Jesus comes to ‘bring us home’ To bring us to our sense, to reveal to us who we really are, and John who bears witness to Jesus, like Jesus comes from God. John isn’t sent ‘by’ God, he is sent ‘from God’
This reminds me so strongly of a story I told just a few weeks ago of an elderly lady who was dying and who was asked by her doctor, ‘where are you from?’ To which she replied without a moments hesitation ‘From God’ – and being baptised and knowing her faith well she might have used the words which described Jesus, ‘knowing that he had come from God and was going back to God.
The ministry of John the baptist is marked by a remarkable freedom – he wears strange clothes, he eats strange food, he lives in strange places. When asked who he is, He proclaims without fear that he is ‘just’ the voice of one who cries in the wilderness – or put another way, he is the mouthpiece of God himself – that the Life in Him is the very Life of God bearing witness to that Life coming into the world in Jesus Christ – a Life that comes from somewhere else – Where are you from??
We can ourselves only bear witness to that Life of Jesus, to the Good News, if we ourselves have that same life in us, or put another way, if we know from where we have come from. If like the old lady we know we have come from God and are going to God – if our Life suggests we are from somewhere else . . . to know as Jesus says that we have been ‘born from above’
As we shall hear once more this coming week – to whoever believed in his name Jesus gives the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. . . .
To be Christian is not as the wider world puts it, to belong to a certain religious group – no, it is to be one who has been brought home, to know who we are, and where we are and where we are from, to where we are going – it is to hear the words of Scripture as God our Father speaking to us, and to know his life flowing through us – it is to know that in this sacrament of the Eucharist, God feeds us with His Life in Christ
Home – a place of rich stories, a place of wonderful meals, a place buried deep in our human memory. As this season of the year awakens so very many memories, may we Know deep within ourselves the answer to the question . . .
Where are you from?
And so, ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’
Sunday – Five after Trinity – YrB 2018
2 Cor 8:7-15
The Flow of Grace – touching the Eternal
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
Metaphysics – and ontology
The Science of Faith
Our Father – Orients us
Psalm 8 – places us
Such thinking was very common but is something we have lost – to our detriment
All good and perfect gifts come from the father of lights
Jesus is perfectly oriented to the Father – this is what it means when we say ‘Christ Jesus is the Image of the invisible God – the firstborn over all creation’
So Life Flows through Him
the kingdom comes from heaven to earth Through him
I only do what I see the Father doing
How interesting that it is this poor woman from whom her life has quite literally been flowing these 12 years who has faith in Jesus. She recognises the flow of Grace, of Life. She doesn’t just have ‘some medical condition’ – literally her Life is flowing out of her body
And Jesus is immediately ‘knew in himself that power had gone out from him’ – The flow of Life, of Grace, of Goodness – New Creation – Literally the Kingdom of God comes Through Him. Through His body!
The Human placed betwixt heaven and Earth – the conduit of the Life of God – the Life that is Eternal
Jesus is always giving his life away to those who look to the heavens – The Cross is the fullest expression of the Image of God – pouring out His Life for the sake of the world.
This is why we are called to repentance – to orient ourselves towards The Heavenly One
To be conduits of Eternal Life
The Giving of Which Paul speaks is utterly natural to those who know the truth of the Kingdom – the Grace of God which is to flow through us. We do not carefully calculate – we give to all who ask of us. This Life is the eternal life – it is the daily manna from heaven – it is the Life of Christ In Us
this is why we pray our Father, and often.
Sermon for Evensong – Sunday 17th June, 2018
As folk are probably aware Sarah and I are, God willing, to become grandparents twice this year.
As part of the preparation for those days, there have been of course the usual round of visits to midwives, and scans, and so it was that earlier this week Ella went to see the midwife in Balclutha – a fine way for the new Vicar’s wife to get known in a small community!
And, and my how things have changed since my day, the visit to the midwife was with the new Vicar! So it was that Brett got to listen to the little one’s [sic] heartbeat (fetus – a ghastly word for a human being – is Latin, and can be more wonderfully translated ‘little one’)
What a thrill to hear that rapid swish swish swish swish. Brett must have been excited for he even sent me a text to tell me! And the words that came instantly to mind were of that old Stevie Wonder classic – ‘Isn’t she lovely’ – although thankfully, we don’t know if the baby is a he or a she, perhaps it was a prophetic word! – that song in which Stevie sings – ‘We have been heaven blessed, I can’t believe what God has done, Through us he’s given life to one’
I can’t believe what God has done – through us He’s given life to one.
You may have noted I began by saying ‘Sarah and I are, God willing, to become grandparents’. Perhaps it sounded like a quaint throwback to a previous age? Just this week I re-read the following words from the diary of a certain Nehemiah Wallington: speaking of the safe delivery of his son, and his wife’s survival, he said “The Lord’s name be praised for it! . . . one or two weeks before, my wife fell sick, [and] I did hear of three score women with child and in childbed [childbirth] that died in one week in Shoreditch parish, and scarce two of a hundred that was sick with child that escaped death” he further noted that his own family’s survival was due only “to the great mercy of God”
A tangible mercy, constantly before the eyes of those for whom human life hung by a thread [So writes Ephraim Radner in A time to Keep, from where this account comes (p24)]
‘God willing’ – ‘what God has done’. The tangible mercy of God . . .
We may well ask, how tangible is the mercy of God in these days, at least for those of us who live at the top of the heap with regard to healthcare provision. We might say, perhaps we should, that God has been Very Willing in this regard – that we live surrounded by the manifest Goodness of God in healthcare provision. That we should give up most of our ‘busy days’ to thanksgiving and praise for the wonder of such healthy and yes, lets not be coy, wealthy lives . . . yet, it seems that we are not surrounded by such thanksgiving, indeed the sense of God’s Provision, His Mercy is perhaps at best ‘a dying note’ in our Modern World. Our Modern World
A World in which these words of St Paul to the Romans in our reading tonight might cause us to say ‘we’re glad to be shot of such a god . . .’
‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?’
For He says to Moses,
‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.
That we are not the creators, but the created, By God, for the Good purposes Of God, for his Glory – as St Paul says elsewhere ‘All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.’ 2 Cor 4:15
So before we dismiss these words of Paul, let us look around, let us consider the phenomenal goodness of so much of our lives. Let us dare to assume that all that we have is the Gift of a gracious God who has had mercy on us, and not our own greedy acquisition. What Abundant mercy! How our hearts should well with gratitude . . . Yet, so readily do we give praise and thanksgiving, but rather we are given to carp and complaint.
Just the other evening I was sat with an old friend in conversation. She was deeply upset about something – yet as we pondered together we realised that there we were, warm, exceedingly well fed, drinking an exceptionally fine wine – living lives of incomparable luxury, unimaginable even to our parents generation . . . yet how readily our thoughts turned to that which we lacked? And, more, where really was God in all of this?? And how for those at the other end – with lives of unimaginable suffering and toil, a simple smile, or courtesy would cause praise and thanksgiving to light up their lives. Materially our lives are So full of light we might say, that we are blinded to it, seeing only the shadows
Is not our problem finally that insofar as we think of God at all, it is impossible to comprehend God as The Prime Mover in all existence, when to our perception, the human and human agency seems to be all but everything
As we have made life unbelievably secure in historic terms – albeit at a cost which I suggest we are only able to discern the extreme contours of – as we have barricaded ourselves against the contingencies of existence, God has become less and less present in our consciousness, but a faint note
We must agree that it is most difficult for us to accept that God is at the centre of all things – we tend, even if we believe, to imagine that somehow we are at least equal partners. How much of our so called Theological discourse uses this language of being equal partners with God . . . but even to admit that is in real terms far far too much. It is hard for us to stomach for our gaze is filled with what We have done . . .
Human life is increasingly one devoid of the view of anything except that which we like to think of as our own making – even to the life of the unborn child. It’s all down to us.
And if you happen to be religious, that is neither here nor there – the same attitude still easily prevails – we think there is little if any difference between the Christian and others in the world, except contestable ‘matters of opinion’.
As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, almost of us are in practical terms atheists . . . ‘Our’ technological prowess and powers over the Creation leaves all of us, Christian or otherwise, with the largely unconscious working model of life that it is down to us, and that God may be a comfort for those for whom life doesn’t seem to work out, but certainly no ‘use’ in the world we are making.
We laugh perhaps to readily at the old farming joke – when the Vicar stood at the gate with a farming parishioner, and exclaimed ‘My, how the Lord has blessed us with such increase’, only for the farmer to reply, ‘‘Praps’, but tha’ should’ve sen it when he had it to ‘issen . . .’
We find it close to impossible to ascribe All Things to The One who acts with infinite love mercy and compassion towards His World . . .
Yet in some respects, this view is not new – human kind has long loved to stand back and admire the work of our hands.
So earlier the prophet Jeremiah “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.”
Imagine if you will the glory of the Solomonic Temple, in all its splendour, there was nothing like it in Jerusalem – oh . . . with the exception of Solomon’s palace . . . how easy to look at this remarkable work of solid engineering, of human craft and design, and not to sense a degree of permanence and security with regards to the work of humans, indeed of humans themselves. And so we are surrounded by signs of our own power and competence . . . the cry of thanksgiving and gratitude grows more and more dim
Who now hears of a pregnancy and commits themselves to prayer for a safe delivery – after all it is all so safe nowadays . . . – yet as our psalm reminds us tonight
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
None of this has changed. Human life hangs like a thread, in the goodness and mercy of God
Jesus reminds us more than once of our hubris in this respect – his disciples look at the Temple and ask him to consider these fine stones, and he tells them, ‘not one will be left upon another’ – he speaks of the rich fool who saw his days blissfully extended as he contemplated his full barns – “you fool, this very night your life will be required of you, and who then will get all that you have acquired”
‘Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather’
Even the faithful in these days give God little more than a passing thought when we come to those things in which we have instead placed our trust – God it seems only comes into the picture when things go awry . . .
God never intended for there to be a Temple – the thought entered David’s heart – yet the Word of the LORD came to the prophet Nathan ‘’Are you the one to build a house for me??’
David in the security and splendour of his accession to the throne, has forgotten the order of things. He thinks that He will build a hose for God! It is only a small step to forgetting God altogether, as he does later when standing on the roof of his palace – above it all – and looks down to see his nemesis – Bathsheba. His heart filled with proud thoughts, master of all he surveys, except he isn’t . . .
He never intended for their to be a Temple, for he would build a Temple for himself . . . ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . .’ ‘Do you not know? You are a Temple of The Holy Spirit’ ‘I can’t believe what God has done . . .’ This is the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD . . .
Sheer and Abundant Gift – the Word made flesh tabernacling amongst us – that we might become the dwelling place of God! And HIs Life erupt from us in praise and thanksgiving
And so we spend our days, so busy for God, doing His work we tell ourselves . . . not knowing what it is truly to have faith and to See the world as held in each moment in God’s Gift – given for God’s good purposes. It seems that the last words you might find on our lips are those of Job ‘The LORD gives – the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.
We live in an age where the gulf between those who Bless the name of the LORD in and through all things – those who Understand the strange nature of all existence as Sheer gift – and those who whether in practise or in thought, curse God, is greater than ever.
The test is Always and everywhere Praise and Thanksgiving, for each and every day. Those Good people – who turn to anything that may lie in the future and commit it to God’s Good and Perfect will, even if often we cannot delineate its contours – accepting our finitude. May the words ‘God willing’ be often found on our lips, our lives continually oriented to The One from whom all good things come (Jas 1:17) – and our hearts be full of gratitude and praise for lives unimaginably full of blessing, from the source of all blessing. ‘For we are passing guests, aliens like all our forebears’ – yet The Temple of the Living God . . .
Second Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018
2 Cor 4:13-5:1
Division, Judgement, and Things Eternal
‘we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.’
Today I’d like to say a few words about why I never preach on ‘hot issues’ in the Church –
Issues that Divide
Over the last few months, I’ve been introduced to the work of the Canadian Psychologist, Jordan Peterson. One of his books is on our bookstall as a result of this. Peterson has risen to global prominence in some spheres and the book is the number one best seller on Amazon. As is often the case when someone becomes ‘famous’, various groups wish either to denounce him, as ‘one of them’, or to claim him as ‘one of us’. Such is the nature of what passes for public debate in this fragmented age that the gulf between the ‘us’s’ and the ‘them’s’ is all but ‘a gulf fix-ed’.
But Peterson, wisely in my view refuses to be labelled. He is often asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, or ‘do you believe in God’ – and you can find many posts in favour of or against these points of view – but he remains resolutely silent on both matters, except to say, in his somewhat abrupt manner – ‘its none of your damn business!’ He refuses to be ‘put in a box’ for he is wise enough to know that people put people in boxes for their own ends, to buttress their own agendas – and he isn’t about to be manipulated like that.
Are you ‘one of them or one of us?’ Such is the spirit of division which seems to be the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age.
So, it is difficult to hear those words of Jesus ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.’ and not think that The Modern World, with its phenomenal divisions, or indeed the Anglican Church here in these Islands with its gaping wounds, will not be able to stand. For here we are ‘by schisms rent asunder and heresies distressed’; certainly if the recent General Synods and the fall out from them is anything to go by, division and taking sides is the order of the day. And everyone seems to think that Jesus is on their side, Jesus is like them, judging those ‘on the other side’
Abstract principles like ‘Truth’, or ‘Justice’ are hurled around, and Jesus is blasphemously dragged into the fray to back up one point of view or the other. I say blasphemously for the fact is that this is breaking the 3rd Commandment ‘thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain’. The name of Jesus is not to be ‘used for any purposes whatsoever’, by us, or by anyone else.
Our only hope is in the words of the Jesus whom we crucify – ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’
They know not what they do. We do not discern – we do not See. Most of all, we do not see Jesus.
This mornings gospel finds Jesus in the very midst of Conflict and Division. Of people making judgements, but not about ‘issues’, about Him, and thereby unveiling the very heart of division.
If you recall from last week, our readings on Jesus and The Sabbath, it ended with these words ’And going out the Pharisees immediately exchanged counsel with the Herodians against him, that they might destroy him.’ Mark 3:6 [DB-H trans]
Immediately before todays gospel just a few verses later we read Jesus called the twelve to be with him, including ‘Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him’. Mk 3:19
This then is the context – Mark’s gospel is barely opened and the scene is set – Jesus has chosen a betrayer to be his close companion, one with whom he breaks bread, Judas, the one who wants to use Jesus for his own ends; and throughout the religious and political leaders are bent on destroying Him.
This is Conflict of the highest order and we cannot read any part of Mark’s gospel without that front and centre of what is going on.
That elusive text ‘But no one can enter the strong man’s household and plunder his possessions unless first he should tie the strong man up, and then he can plunder his household.’ begs the question ‘who is the strong man who must be tied up? who is the plunderer? what is the household? who will be ‘tied up’ . . . so when we see Jesus ‘tied up’ and handed over to Pilate we get an inkling . . . that Jesus is on the one hand speaking of himself. For they want to destroy him, this usurper King and keep control for themselves . . . we always want to keep control for ourselves.
But of course it is ambiguous – perhaps Jesus himself is the one come to plunder the household and must bind the one who is its Prince, Satan, the strong man. Whichever way, the conflict is set up. And conflict brings with it division.
We may hear these words of Jesus from Matthew ‘ ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’
Jesus Himself is the locus of Division. His very being divides . . .
It is hard to hear these words without returning to our gospel today
Jesus’ blood relations want to lay hands on him ‘And his relatives, hearing this, went out to seize him forcibly; for they said, “He is beside himself.”’ David Bentley Hart’s translation gets to the centre of this – They look at Him and say ‘he is beside himself’ – he is internally divided, and this judgement of Jesus continues within the house.
‘the scribes coming down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul in him, and he exorcizes demons by the prince [Archon] of the demons.” Well as Jesus notes, they are accusing him also of being ‘divided within himself’ and that is a futile place to be, for were that the case then the kingdom, the house would fall – but this is your hour . . . you will have to bind the strong man . . .
Both Jesus family, and the scribes stand separate from Him – judging Him. This is what we do. When we judge someone, we pretend that they are nothing to do with us – Jesus family don’t even come into the house – they stand outside – echoing the charge they make against Jesus who they say is beside himself ‘literally ‘standing outside’ himself . . . what they see is what they are.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that we see as we are – we only judge others for things we see in ourselves, setting ourselves apart from others. His family see Him as standing outside of themselves, as they stand outside of the house. The Scribes see only something which could be divided. As we know, Jesus opponents are far from being a unified bunch – they come together in political alliance to destroy the one who threatens them all
Jesus opponents see division – they See Jesus as ‘beside himself’ – they see him doing things which are the action of divided people – themselves are divided. His family are ‘beside themselves’ If nothing else this shows us that to judge others is to see ourselves . . .
But we must be careful here ourselves, for it is very easy to divide with regard to Jesus – separate Jesus from his teaching, as if he is pointing us finally to some great moral truth which can be known separately from him.
Jesus Himself is The Truth. Jesus himself is the one who judges justly. There is not Truth nor Justice that can be known apart from Him, and any that can is neither True nor Just. This is all fundamentally a conflict about who Jesus really is. They are divided about Him . . .
The question goes around and around, Who is He?
He is the One who is forming a new humanity around himself
“Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him he says, “Behold: my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, this one is my brother and sister and mother.” Echoing these words of Jesus from John
‘Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.’ His teaching is from God, for He is from God
The fundamental issue is quite simply this – it is one on which all human division is finally founded – Who is Jesus? The question is not ‘Is Jesus on this side or that side?’ It is are we on His. Seeking only to do the will of God
The answer to that question is the answer to all our human questing. Jesus is the manifestation of The Image of God – the True Human – The True Humanity. In Him all things hold together
The many and diverse issues and controversies the church is mired in are all about the things that are passing away, fuelled by words in ears about ‘these people’ or ‘those people’ – words that come from where . . . ‘who told thee that thou were’t naked?’ who told you this about your brother or sister? Who told you? Strife and conflict in the church is always and everywhere rooted in a failure to See, to behold Christ himself. As St Paul puts it, the very theme of the first letter to the Corinthians is ‘failure to discern the Body – failure to See Christ. Failure to see our life is together in Him. And that failure is potentially deadly. Such things are tools of division – we have nothing to do with them. They are ‘of this passing moment’ – tomorrow they will disappear and new things and new controversies will present themselves to us, to distract us, to pull us apart, if we choose to look there, or do we choose to behold The Man, Jesus the Christ? Our gaze rather should always and everywhere be on Him – on that which is eternal
This is the root of Jesus words about ‘eternal sin’ they are not seeing that which is Eternal standing before them and listen to the words whispered in their ear ‘he is one of them . . .’ His words to us are a stark warning – don’t get caught up in this stuff, for you will end up sinning against existence itself, and there is no forgiveness for that
That is why our gaze is on the things that are eternal – like Mary we sit at the feet of Jesus to gaze on Him and to Hear His Word to us – the One thing. Not divided Martha’s with her ‘many things’
And this is why I never preach on ‘issues’
And indeed why would anyone, for Jesus is the irruption into the space and time which are passing away of eternal Life and Existence itself. Full of Beauty and Truth and Goodness. Of Peace that passes all understanding. Of Life, and Joy in the Holy Spirit. Who in their right mind would be caught up in and by anything less?
At the beginning of Pilgrim’s progress, the pilgrim runs out on his quest with his hands over his ears to the cries of the World, saying ‘look here!’ ‘look there!’ crying as he runs, ‘life, life, eternal life’. May we be a people consumed by that quest – our eyes fixed on Him who is eternal Life in our midst – our beginning and our End
First Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018
2 Cor 4:5-12
So over the last couple of months we have been exploring The Lord’s Prayer each Sunday evening. And the way we have been doing this is exploring it as the Way Jesus gives us to Live before God in the God’s Creation.
This is to live with that consciousness which our Psalm invites us to – ‘Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you discern my thoughts from afar . . . even before the word comes to my consciousness you know it entirely, you hem me in behind and before . . . I am utterly known and surrounded by you . . .’ this God whom Isaiah saw in the Temple, high and lifted up. So we are taught to pray, and to pray continually – with our heart mind body and strength always and everywhere turned towards the Light and Life of God in Jesus Christ thorough the prayer he has both commanded and taught us to pray
And so it is perhaps no coincidence that we have circles back on occasion to The Sabbath – for what Is the Sabbath? The Jewish scholar and rabbi, Abraham Heschel says ‘[The Sabbath] is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world’
a day on which we are called to share in what is eternal in time . . . I’ll return to this shortly
When I was at Vicar school, I remember one Old Testament lecture in particular – it was the one on the Ten Commandments, in which we were asked to write them down, from memory. And of course this did cause a little consternation, not least because not all of us remembered al ten . . . but also because there are two different accounts of the Ten Words as they are perhaps better named, and in particular the fourth, the Sabbath commandment. There is a shift in emphasis between the Exodus command – which harks back to creation and God’s Rest on the Seventh Day – and that which Moses recites in Deuteronomy which we heard today, which is given in the light of Israel’s failure to live out the Sabbath – going out to gather manna when there was none. It has a harder edge, and the emphasis is not so much on rest, but on not working. It is as if The LORD is saying, well you seem determined not to share in my rest, so at the very least stop working – which means do not make anyone work. The command is given to those at the top of the pile so to speak. When those at the top of the pile don’t rest, neither does anyone else.
of course in this day and Age, Mammon is at the top of the pile. The international markets never sleep – As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day, Tokyo closes and Frankfurt opens and then the Dow – nor dies the sound of exchange away . . . no one must be prevented from making a profit and so it is those at the bottom who are made to work . . . Certainly if any age Needed a break from work, then it is ours – yet that is to misinterpret the Sabbath. It is not ‘a day off’ – a term which I find very difficult to understand from my own perspective – it seems Worng somehow. Except to say that would be to suggest that I am enslaved to my work – yet this is to miss the point. Rest and Work are not related in this way. Saying ‘you must have a day off’ has nothing to do with Sabbath and nothing I think to do with being a Christian – but our failure to understand this is a failure to understand Jesus
As I said, the Deuteronomy command is one that restrains Evil, but it does not direct us to share in the Rest of God. Certainly those who oppose Jesus over The Sabbath, have Deuteronomy, rather than Exodus in mind. In Deuteronomy the emphasis is ‘you were slaves, don’t enslave others!’ It is negative. In Exodus it is ‘you were slaves, you are no longer slaves – not least slaves to work! . . .enter my Rest . . .’
So in Deuteronomy – any sign of Work is stamped on – because Work is not allowed on the Sabbath, not because Rest is to be enjoyed. And so it is today – Sabbath has nothing to do with Work! We do not rest in order to work – for that would leave work a the highest good, but it is very clear that it is not, for it is only the Sabbath Day in all of Time which is Holy – and here at least the Deuteronomy command echoes Exodus. This Day is Holy – the Day of Rest is a day of participation in the Life of the Holy One. It is ‘a day on which we are called to share in what is eternal in time’.
Briefly we are reminded of something we pondered last week, that The Church is not rooted ‘in time’ – her Calling, her Life is not to be ‘endlessly chasing after the present, trying to ‘keep up to date’ – that is to be enslaved by time. Nor is it to be ‘stuck in the past’, that too is to be chained and bound by time. No, The Church is that Community which is rooted in the Eternal Life of The One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. It is a Community of The Eternal, in time and Space – we might say to use the words of one author a ‘Colony of Heaven’
Which brings us back to Jesus and the Sabbath . . . and how easy it is to misunderstand what is going on here. This is NOT a passage which pits Jesus against ‘the religious people’ – rather it is simply a Revealing of the Life of God, resisted by both the religious pharisees, but also the politically minded Herodians – resisted because it threatens the very nature of what they have come to call Time – it is the inbreaking of the Eternal into All Space and Time . . . The Pharisees enslaved by the law, do not See God, nor do the Herodians whom we might think stand for the modern forces of Total Work
In all four gospels, what occasions the plot to destroy Jesus? In every gospel it is Jesus’ treatment of the Temple, of which He startlingly claims Absolute Ownership – ‘destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it’ His Claiming Authority over all Space— And The Sabbath! Jesus claiming his Authority over All Time! All Authority – over All Space and All Time
Both themes are worked in these incidents
Jesus disciples are walking through those fields, white unto harvest! They are collecting and eating the grains. The Pharisees protest ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ – but listen again to Jesus’ reply ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ And we may think? That’s an odd answer to give. The question is about the Sabbath Day – Jesus’ answer? . . . Jesus is drawing their attention to The King – David – going into what stood then for the Temple ‘the house of God’ – and acting as The High Priest – ‘he ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’[This of course is the Hidden manna of Revelation 2] For us, this directs US to the Eucharist. King Jesus, the Great High Priest, gives us Himself, the Bread of the Presence of God . . . For us All of Space is The Temple – the Body of Christ – We are in Him! Eternal Space . . .
But also eternal Time. In the healing of the man with the withered hand – He directs our gaze to the Kingdom present in Him where there is no sickness or pain . . . Heavenly Time is breaking in – the Eternal Time is coming to us as The Son, The Great High Priest comes to us, ushering us into HIs Life, His Time and HIs space. Here and Now
This is made perfectly clear in Matthew where we have the same Sabbath conflict and the same outcome preceded by These familiar words ‘Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. I will! Not eventually, not in heaven, as it was some infinitely prolonged ‘day off’ but Now, and Here!
I am the Temple – I am Sabbath. Here and Everywhere – Now and Always. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and I will find rest for your souls’
Learn My Sabbath Work – my Eternal Work – the Word which is rooted in The Work the Father is doing . . .
Well, we might ask – what of our Work? Well, that’s a good question!
If you read at all about Sabbath and Sabbath practices, you will pretty much without fail read either a Jewish account, or a Protestant one. Before the Reformation there seems to be no account of it, hardly at all. Of course it was the Protestants who gave us ‘the work ethic, and in some sense ushered in the age of what one writer calls ‘total work’. It is perhaps not surprise that we should find a resurgence of interest in Sabbath in such areas – a practise of rest geared to justify our work – but the Work of God requires no human justification
Work now, in The Church, amongst God’s people, in God’s TIME, in Godspace – in Christ Jesus, the King and High Priest, in whom and through whom and for whom all things were made, in whom all things hold together – this Work is The Rest Full Work of The King ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Small work, in the terms of the World, insignificant, hidden work, the soil, the compost, certainly not work that has any relationship with Money . . . the hidden Kingdom, The Work which is Rest, fed by the hidden Manna, a bread to eat which we are only coming to know – the bread of the Presence.
The Pharisees and The Herodians kill Jesus because His Kingdom is a Total takeover of everything. Jesus call to us is the same as it is to them – Repent – Orient yourself towards the The Eternal Life, The Eternal Time and Space which Jesus ushers in. Feed on Him – The Bread of the Presence – Live before God in every moment of your existence, train yourself in this, this food this presence . . . and one day you will wake up walking with him in perfect obedience and true Sabbath Freedom
‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest . . .’ Here, and Now