Bible Study Notes for Sunday September 2nd

BIble Study notes for Sunday September 2nd



Song of Songs 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-23



The theme of this week’s service is ‘The Life of Slavery and the Life of Liberty’


Read through each text slowly, whilst everyone else listens – (not following in your own bibles) – asking ‘what catches your attention in this passage? Does it leave you with questions?’


[At whatever point you have but a few minutes left for Study, Make sure to leave time at the end to read through in this way at the end – ‘What is Christ saying to his church in these verses?’ is there a message for us at St John’s? Respond in prayer]




1.Our first reading comes from the Song of Songs. This is Love poetry of the highest order. It’s place in the canon of Scripture was debated at length (the imagery it uses is at times, quite erotic). However there is a long tradition reaching back to the earliest days of the church to understand the passage in the light of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The passage we have today gives us the words of the female – which we might understand as the Church, the bride of Christ as she apprehends her lover (Christ) and hears his words.

a.What are our thoughts on this? May we understand the relationship between Christ and his church in these terms?

b.What might be the implications for the church to understand itself as the object of such love?

c.Bernard of Clairvaux (the founder of the Cistercian monastic order) wrote a commentary on Song of Songs (a series of sermons). In it he speaks of the lover as Christ and the beloved not as the church but as the individual Christian. Reading the passage in these terms, what if anything changes in our apprehension of it?

d.Bernard counsels that we cannot understand the message of Song of Songs unless we have been instructed in two other books of Wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The first teaches us the folly of seeking the meaning of our lives in Love of the World. (The author follows all the paths of the world, seeking meaning in Work, in Money, in hedonistic pleasure and finds them all Vanity ‘empty’). The second is as it were a book of disciplining, of teaching, the purpose of which is to turn us from love of ourselves. Finally and only then, having been freed from false affections can the soul learn to love Christ.

i.How does love of the world and love of ourself keep us from the love of Christ?

ii.Bernard speaks of three kisses, the kiss of the feet, the kiss of the hands and the kiss of the mouth. (paralleling the three books) The first, echoing the actions of the woman who wiped Jesus feet with her hair, is where we discover foregiveness (turning away from the way of the World). The second, of the hands, is where we turn from ourselves to active service. The third is understood in terms of the union of the believer with her Lord, by the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Jesus breathing on the disciples is in view here). The language of ascent to union with Christ is common throughout the churches history.

a.Is it a language which we know something of?

b.How helpful is it to understand this in terms of the individual as opposed to the whole body of Christ, the Church?

c.How might we understand these three kisses as expressed in the life of the church?


2.Spend a few moments now meditating in silence, first upon the Song of Songs passage and then upon James 1:17-18

d.What is the gift the Father has given us? (See 1 John 3:1, John 1:12-13)

i) Note how James starts by describing the Father as the giver and then moves on to describe the gift. Did we note that James specifies the gift, or was our initial answer to 2a in terms of other gifts? (This is a reminder that we always have to read the text closely, or we too easily read our own answers into the text)

b.Read James 1:19-20

i) Why does James insist on being quick to listen and slow to speak?

ii)This is just one example of ‘escalation’, a recurring theme in the letter – look at James 4:1-3 – all of these have their roots in our hearts. Read the gospel passage set – Note how the teaching of James closely follows that of Jesus in terms of the heart

iii)Think back to the Song of Songs passage with its theme of the love of the Church and the believer for Christ – what is the cure for the condition of our hearts?

iv) James concludes If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. So if we are to be quick to listen, to what should we be listening and how should we respond? What does it mean to ‘keep oneself unstained by the world’? ( A minor theme in contemporary Christianity??)


LIght in the darkness 8 – The Samaritan Woman


Chapter 4 – the woman at the well

Lectio Divina vs 16-26

As we have been making our unsystematic explorations in John’s gospel, one image that I have repeatedly come back to is that of the Gospel as a Rich tapestry. That through it runs theme after theme like the threads and that at times these threads surface in such a way as to bring out a particular motif. So we explored how ‘The Good Shepherd’ – understood as it must be in terms of Christ the Kingly Priest, is one of combinations of threads, drawn together in  Jesus teaching in John Chapter 10.

Well tonight I want to do something a little different, for whilst undoubtedly the idea of a tapestry of themes is one way we can image John’s gospel, another is to realise that the whole gospel is multi layered – that there are levels of meaning and indeed that this is made very explicit in several places. [ Just as an aside, one place where that does not apply is the gospel from this morning, where Jesus says Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. As I said this morning, this is where quite starkly we are faced with at one and the same time a lack of levels of meaning, that the words of Jesus are not open to levels of interpretation, there is but one meaning, yet at that time, that meaning is of the profoundest significance. To be clear I am not saying that the text is open to many different interpretations, although that is difficult, the sheer variety of understandings of the Eucharist reveal most clearly that the church down through the ages has like the disciples struggled with this teaching of Jesus – but that that those interpretations are our attempts to wrestle with the only meaning in the text. This text in and of itself is not replete with levels of meaning ]

So to come back to the multilayered nature of the Gospel, there are places where not only can Jesus be understood on different levels, but that this is made explicit in the text. So Nicodemus understands Jesus in one way, but Jesus wants to open to him another layer of meaning, and it is so with our text this evening. The Samaritan woman is thinking in terms of physical water, Jesus will take her to another level of meaning and understanding.

And this text is SO full of layers, layer upon layer, that we can do only the most cursory survey this evening.

Firstly however, I Do want to connect this passage to the rest of the gospel. John’s gosepl is a whole and we can never hope to do credit to it without having the whole in view as we listen to even a few verses. So I will first briefly highlight three threads present throughout John’s gospel and running through this passage [there are more]. Firstly that of marriage. Now of course we might think that Marriage only comes to the fore in the wedding at Cana – but that is of course a motif – the threads are seen elsewhere and indeed there is a second motif. Indeed we might look at each part of the gospel in this way , seeking out where the motifs are present in the trheads that make up the whole.
In the wedding at Cana, Jesus is portrayed as the true host of the wedding. Here also another thread is found which I will return to in a minute.
Again the motif of marriage and indeed I think given our current turmoil, a far more helpful one than the wedding at Cana, for it reveals Christian marriage to be a sacred and holy mystery, is the encounter of Jesus ‘the gardener’, or to use an older more biblically informed title, the husbandman, with Mary Magdalene. Here in the Garden we see the restoration of the male female complementarity, and also a picture of the union of Christ with his bride the faithful church, the one who defers to him as Rabboni, or teacher.

Well of course we know that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute and so when we come back now to chapter four, we find a woman who as we read the text on the surface level is an adulteress, she has had five husbands and the man she has now is not her husband’. So once more the issue again is marriage, and we should not forget the Old Testament background of the prophets where Israel itself is seen as the faithless bride of God, explicitly in the prophet Hosea.

Well it might seem thus that I am as it were stretching a point here, but not if we remember that John’s gospel must be understood against a rich background of texts and in this case, as I have said before, we cannot read John without at the same time allowing the Revelation of John to inform our imagination and so we may well hear echoing deep in the background of these allusions to marriage in the gospel, these words:

For the Lord our God
   the Almighty reigns. 
Let us rejoice and exult
   and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
   and his bride has made herself ready; 
to her it has been granted to be clothed
   with fine linen, bright and pure’—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’
Now of course we need to be warned at this point. For how easy it is to take the texts of Scripture  which are all about Christ, and make them all about us. Yes Marriage is to the fore, but this Marriage in the eschatalogical, final and perfect sense, that is the Union of Christ and the Church. We may begin to make inferences then about what marriage between a man and a woman might perhaps look like, but this is derivative. Unfortunately it seems that of late and indeed through much of history, this fundamental ordering has been reversed. The human is the Image of God, Not God. Human marriage is the image of the Union twixt Christ and the Church, it is Not the lasting fundamental reality. Human marriage is until death do us part – there is NO ‘Re-united’ in Christian theology as marks many gravestones. There is Only the final union twixt Christ and his church. That as much as anything suggests to me that the church at least has No business fooling around with definitions of marriage.
So we must beware of making the Scriptures fundamentally textxs about us, about our lives and not about God and only in that Light about our lives. We struggle not to look at the text through the spectacles of our own culture and we need as far as possible to remove them in order to See what is before us. And so it is with regard to the relationship of Jesus with Women. If this is all we see in this passage, then we miss much.
Not least that most Intriguing characteristic of Jesus’ encounter with women in John’s gospel is that they all have a common theme running through them – they all without exception evoke ‘fruitfulness’. The new Adam encounters a woman and new life comes into being. First at the wedding feast, where Mary incites Jesus into action and the New Wine is Created – to the Samaritan Woman – where the result is that there is a harvest of new life – we read in John 4:35- 42 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Again – fruitfulness.
Then Martha at the grave of Lazarus – Jesus encounters her and calls her to faith and her faith is then the trigger for the Resurrection of Lazarus – Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Finally at the tomb she falters – Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out.
Again Life and then finally in the garden, Mary Magdalene rushes to tell the disciples, I have seen the Lord, the announcement of the Life of Christ set free in the world.
So reading the text with regard to Jesus and women we see far more than our limited contemporary agendas will allow. Again I say, the Scriptures are not primarily about us, they are about God. Our understanding of marriage and the relationship between men and women must tak as its point of reference the life of God and the relationship of Christ to the church.
The third and final thread is that of Life and abundance in regard to spiritual goods. The Wine runs out, the bread does not satisfy, the water leaves you thirsty. In this passage Jesus points through the material to himself, that he in his materiality, in his flesh he is the source of New Wine, bread that does not leave you hungry and a spring of eternal life -and in these three elements revealing the fulness of Life in and through the Spirit of the risen Christ. Christ in and of himself throughout the gospel of John reminds us that we cannot separate out as it were the ‘spiritual Jesus’, the Christ of faith, from Jesus who comes from Nazareth whose flesh we must eat and whose blood we must drink.
And so to the story. As I said it is multi layered and some of these I have now alluded to in exploring three threads amongst many with which this encounter is woven. So for the rest of the time I want to look at the story in two different dimensions. Firstly there is the simple story of the encounter of Jesus with a woman and how that encounter leads to life for her fellow Samaritans.
Firstly we find Jesus at the well. It is interesting to note that there may be a Moses parallel here – we read that Jesus is retreating from the pharisees at this point who have heard he is baptising more than John the Baptist. When Moses flees from his own in Exodus, he too comes to rest by a well where he encounters the daughters of the priests of Midian and draws water from the well for them. So when the woman gets over her shock at being addressed by this Jewish man, Jesus engages her and says ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’ But you have no bucket and the well is deep. Moses drew water from a well, but Jesus is himself the Well – the Law came through moses, Grace and Truth through Jesus Christ.
The disciples have disappeared ‘ to find bread’ (we may think ahead here about Jesus words – they do not yet recognise the Living Bread) and Jesus weary from travel asks the woman for a drink – the woman having got over the shock of being addressed by this Jewish man  – Jesus then goes on to say that if she knew who it was who was asking  – he would have given you living water. As I pointed out this morning, the woman misunerstands and Jesus rapidly corrects her – Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, she asks? (another layer here to which I shall return) – Jesus responds that those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman understanding that more is afoot replies ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
At which point Jesus seems to divert the conversation – with a discussion of her far from unchequered history – she has been married to four or five different men. NOw of course on the surface as many commentators suggest, in the terms of her time she is the classic ‘fallen woman’, but there is more here. She keeps having to come back to the well, she keeps having to find a new husband – the two I suggest are related. Not because she needs to marry a man who will come to the well himself 🙂 but rather because she has not found ahusband who is Life giving to her. I suggest that here in view is the idea of the husband as the head of the wife, in the sense that he is the Source of Life – that the husband is the one who is to release the wife into the fullness of who she is, in the same way that it is the Life of Christ freely given which allows the church to be the light of the world. The word ‘Head’ in the New testament is also the word for the source of a river. COnservative commentators missing the double meaning and also igniring Christs own words that the one who is First must be the servant of all, refuse to allow the double meaning of the husband who is the head and lays down his life that the wife might come to fulleness of life.
So Yes, she is a sinful woman, but she is searching for life and in Christ she has found it. The discussion then moves to Worship. Some people suggest that the woman, having been found out is trying to dodge the issue, but in fact no. For the site of worship was seen as the place for forgiveness and also the source of life. We remember that Ezekiel vision of the Temple as the source of the River of LIfe, as was Eden, and most importantly, as Christ himself declares himself to be in John 7:38.
The Jews worship God in Jerusalem at the Temple, the Samaritans at Mt Gerizim – where must I go to find forgiveness and life she is asking? What you have said is true, JEsus responds – Salvation does come from the Jews, but that does not mean that you must go to Jerusalem, rather the hour is coming, and is now here, [Time reference] when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
The woman is transformed – she has encountered Christ – she rushes to tell her people, come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done, he cannot be the Messiah, can he? The Samaritans come to Jesus and many believe in his name.
So the surface story, but even this has depths we may miss
Briefly to the underlying story. We may well have noticed that the woman has no name. This is not insignificant. we can come up with lots of reasons for this, but they tend to fail the test of the whole gospel. It cannot be that John has a negative attitude to women as he names several and gives them key roles. No. She has no name because her personal story stands for another story. She is a Samaritan  – she lives in the Land of Jacobs well. It is interesting, but I haven’t gone any further than this, that the Samaritan woman’s story focusses on JAcob – we remember that Jesus quite possibly alludes negatively to Jacob when he says of NAthaniel, an Israelite (not a jew mind you, an Israelite0 In whom there is no deceit. JAcob the deceiver. Jesus tells the woman that Salvation does come from the Jews. When JEsus is in conflict with the Jews and it reaches its peak the conflict is around Abraham – If abraham were your father . . .

Furthermore Where you worshipped was a Key area of disagreement between the Jews and the Samaritans. THe Samaritans, tracing their story back more to the patriarchs than to Moses as ‘the Jews’ did (remember that ;The JEws’ also refers in large part to the Pharisees and their attempts to shore up the national religion and sense of citizenship)
The Samaritans claimed that the shrine at shiloh presided over by Eli was a place of false worship and that Mt Gerizim, where they said that Abraham had gone to sacrifice Isaac (mt Moriah) was the true place of worship. HEnce quite possibly the multitudinous references to worship at the high places in the Old Testament, particularly in reference to the Northern Kingdom, whose territory the Samaritans now inherited
Thus the woman can also be understood symbolically as the unfaithful Samaritans who have had many ‘husbands’ – their allegiance has been far from the living God, atleast in the eyes of the Jews, a view Jesus seems to uphold by asking her where ehr husband is and the number five is not insignificant here 2 Kings 17 24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. 25When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26So the king of Assyria was told, ‘The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.’ 27Then the king of Assyria commanded, ‘Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.’ 28So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the Lord. Settled by the people of BAbylon, Cutha, Avva, HAmath and Sepharvaim. Suffice it for now to say that we have five areas ruled over by five kings. The link between Kings and worship is far stronger than it is for us – (cf The Kingdom of God is primarily about worship)

And so we come to a close – with words of Ignatius of Antioch whom I quoted this morning, one of the earliest bishops of the church, made a bishop in AD 67, perhaps even before JOhn wrote is gospel, and someone whom JOhn knew – regarding the sufficiency of the water – however fascinating all the threads and layers – the whole is a portrait of Christ the one whom said those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Ignatius says this tying together todays gospel and this evening s text ‘My lust hath been crucified, and there isin me no fire of love for material things, but only water living and speaking in me, and saying to me from within “Come to the Father”. I have no pleasure in the food of corruption or in the delights of this life. I desitre the bread of GOd which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David, and for drink I desire his blood which is love incorrubtible’
And all God people said ‘Amen’

Sermon for Sunday August 26th – 13 after Pentecost

Sermon for Sunday August 26th – 13 after Pentecost


1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”

Once again our gospel confronts us with the hard words of Jesus, Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. So I would like to spend a few minutes today thinking about the connection between Jesus and the words of Jesus.
You may perhaps remember a few weeks back our readings had the theme of ‘Peace’, and I spoke about how Christian faith had given certain words to the wider culture, Justice, Grace, Mercy, Peace, Love etc. and that the World had taken them, changed their meaning so that it were no longer necessary to believe in Jesus to understand them, and given them back to the church, and how many in the church now used these words as the World used them. To put it at its most sharp, that the church often now spoke as if it did not believe in Jesus.
You may perhaps like to give yourself a little test. Ask yourself the question, ‘is it possible to live the Christian life without belief in Christ?’. There are many in the world in which we live who would say, ‘why yes, it is perfectly possible, one does not have to believe in Jesus to embrace Christian values’. Yet this is not what Jesus says, he says ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ – apart from me you have no life. We are confronted, indeed rebuked by the words of our Risen Lord, that we even entertain the notion that Christian Life can be lived apart from Christ. Yet many in the church eagerly embrace this notion, and the net result has been the collapse of the Church in the Western world.

As we have done with the language of our faith, we have done with the very heart of our faith, Christ himself. It is impossible to describe Grace, or Judgement, or Wisdom, or Peace or Justice without reference to Jesus Christ. We must point to our crucified and risen Lord and say ‘THIS is what we mean when we say these things!’. But we have not. We have taken these things and turned them into ‘values’, as principles for living apart from Discipleship and Obedience to Christ. We have offered the world something which all are free to embrace without faith in Christ, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap Grace’. That as long as you believe in these values, you can if you so wish call yourself Christian – you do not have to believe in or follow Christ. And the fact that so many think that that is True and that it is odd at best and bigoted at worse to think otherwise, merely shows how effectively many in the the church has moved away from faith in Christ. And of course over the past hundred years or so there have been those within the church who have followed this move to its logical conclusion by saying, we can have Godless Christianity. We just need the values.
Living as a Christian cannot be disconnected from Christ. And this move away from Christ begins when we try to separate out ‘Jesus’ from his Words. He is the Word made flesh and yet we all too readily try NOT to identify Jesus with his Words. We create what I referred to a couple of weeks ago as ‘the Fake Jesus’, the reasonable Jesus. Like those disciples, we find his words too strong, too hard and no longer go about with him.
To give an example of how this works, one might say ‘I do not believe in Hell’ – to which the only proper response is, ‘well Jesus certainly did, indeed he is the one who speaks more about hell than any other person in the biblical record.’ ‘Ah!’ comes the response, ‘but I cannot believe ‘Jesus’ would have really said those things.’ We create an idol, a Jesus whom we can worship, because he agrees with us. A Jesus who has no connection to the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, a ‘Spiritual Jesus’ – a phantasm of our own imaginings.

And this is for the church a fatal step, separating ‘the Christ of faith – ‘Jesus’’ from the words of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospels. And it Is Fatal, for it is to separate us from He whose very words are eternal life –  and thus it is death to the church that no longer bears his name. For as people separated out the Concrete revelation of Christ in the Scriptures from a ‘mystical’ or if you like a ‘spiritual’ ‘Jesus’, so too they widen the gap between Christ and his church. We are ashamed of the Son of Man in his flesh and his words which are too hard for us, and we are ashamed of the Church that bears his name and clings to Him and His words. As we are required to believe in a ‘mystical Jesus’ who is not represented in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, so too we are no longer believe it when St Paul says ‘You are the Body of Christ’ – but of course if we will not bear his words, then in what sense do we bear his name. The Church fails to be the church when it denies her Lord’s Words. For the Word is the bearer of Life, however hard. to deny the Words of Jesus, is to deny the LIfe of Jesus.

And so let us once more offer up hearty thanks to God for St Peter. There is no sense that Peter finds the hard words of Jesus any easier than those disciples who are deserting Jesus, but he Knows that Jesus is the very Author of Life – “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter speaks for the haltingly obedient Church, the Church that struggles to believe and yet Knows that for its Very Life it Must ‘You have the words of eternal Life, You are the Holy One of God’. Peter realises that he has found Life and that the Words of the Living one are Life in and of themselves. That All of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is Life, in him ‘there is no darkness at all’. He is Life – hIs Words are Life – there is no disconnect between Christ and his Words – he is ‘the Word made flesh’

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God’ Note this that St Peter says this immediately after Jesus most indigestible teaching, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’, and just a little while later we hear these words, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” But Jesus does not go running after them. The Living word of God is in himself Judgement upon the world, His words are Life to those who believe, and condemnation for those who do not  ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God’. Those who hate the Light depart from his presence. Jesus’ words sift out wheat from weeds, those who struggle to apprehend what he means yet cling to Him like Peter, from those who reject him because of his words, or in our day those sophisticated types who use every tool at their disposal to create a sham faith which constructs a Jesus of their own imagining, with an existence apart from his recorded words.

But, assuming that that is not what we believe, and hearing those hard words, what are we to make of them? We speak readily nowadays of the Journey of faith – but the only valid journey is that like Peter’s – we can only begin by accepting Christ as the one who gives life, and then we must journey into deeper understanding.
We might say that those who departed just misunderstood Jesus’ words, and there are several occasions in John’s gospel where Jesus is clearly misunderstood. For example Jesus encounter with Nicodemus where Nicodemus thinks Jesus is saying one must enter a second time into his mothers womb, and Jesus corrects him saying unless one is born of water and the Spirit – and again with the Samaritan woman, She thinks Jesus is referring to real water and he clarifies for her that he is referring to Spiritual water one will drink, if you believe in Him. Jesus speaks, people misunderstand – Jesus corrects them.

But then these words of Jesus ‘56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’ And here Jesus provides No alternative explanation.
Last week we heard Christ speak these words amongst us “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Then they complained – How can this man give us his flesh to eat? So at this point you’d expect Jesus, like he did with the Samaritan woman, like he did with Nicodemus, to explain it. But he doesn’t. In fact he Intensifies it – he drives the point home – in the gospel this week he says literally  ‘Those who munch on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever munches on me will live because of me.’

Rather than saying, ah you’ve got me wrong, let me loosen it up a bit, he says – I meant what I said, you really need to eat my flesh and drink my blood, munch on it.Get it? “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”

Now of course there is a Lot one could say about the Eucharist here; that the Eucharist is here set forth as the source of the Life of the Church, that in the material and physical bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us spiritually; that as some early Christians said when one of the Roman Emperors forbad the Eucharist, ‘you may as well kill us – for this is our Life’; that the Eucharist is the profoundest Identification of the Church with its Lord – we gather round his table and he gives us himself in bread and Wine. The Eucharist effects the sacred Union betwixt the Son of God and those who believe on him. ( after Hoskyns ‘the Fourth Gospel’ )

I could also say that this is why we spend quality time each week hearing the scriptures, especially the Gospel, although Christ is the subject of all the Scriptures; we feed on his words, His Words are our Life – we feed on his body and blood – there is no Difference between Christ and His Words, He is our Life. If people ask ‘why do you do this?’, we have to say, to whom else can we go, where else can we go, but to be with his brothers and sisters, to be with Him who is our Life.

And that is the point. Christ is the Life of the church, we are his body, animated by his Spirit. Apart from him we can do nothing. THe church that imagines it can separate out Jesus form the words of Jesus is on the path of destruction. Apart from Christ made present to us in Word and Sacrament, the church has no life. To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Some words of St Paul. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The days are evil as St Paul tells us, nothing else but wholehearted identification with the word made flesh will do for the days in which we live. As that old saint Malcolm Muggeridge put it, ‘I have a longing past conveying . . . to use whatever gifts of persuasion I may have to induce others to see that they must at all costs hold on to [the reality of Christ]; lash themselves to it as, in the old days of sail, sailors would lash themselves to a mast when storms blew up and the seas were rough. For indeed storms and rough seas lie ahead’ I would say that they not only lie ahead, we are in the midst of them. May God so open our eyes to the truth of Christ that hard though his words are, we with Peter realise that there is nowhere else to go for He and He alone has the words of eternal Life, that he is without doubt the Holy One of God – and let us Hold fast to Him. Apart from Him we have Nothing.


Bible Study notes for Sunday August 26th


BIble Study Notes for Sunday August 26th



1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69



(You might like to read all three passages first to get a feel for how they might fit together)


The theme of this week’s service is ‘Holding Fast to Christ’ – and we are going to focus on the reading from Ephesians


Read through each text slowly, whilst everyone else listens – (not following in your own bibles) – asking ‘what catches your attention in this passage? Does it leave you with questions?’


[At whatever point you have but a few minutes left for Study, Make sure to leave time at the end to read through in this way at the end – ‘What is Christ saying to his church in these verses?’ is there a message for us at St John’s? Respond in prayer]




1.  First we note that the Lectionary has omitted Ephesians Chapter 5 vs 21 – Chapter 6 vs 9 inclusive. Take time to read these verses.

1.1.What does it mean to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ

1.2.How does being subject to one another fit with contemporary understandings of human life?

1.3.Sunday evenings reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews says ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.’ Such words seem out of place in an non hierarchical society. Is hierarchy one way in which the practice of Christian faith is counter cultural here in New Zealand, or does the church need to learn from the wider world?

1.4. Jesus does not do away with heirarchy, he radically subverts it – those who lead must serve, giving their lives for the flock. We submit to his rule – he is LORD. We readily concur that we can serve Christ in serving one another – is it true that we submit to Christ in submitting to one another?

2.   The text we are reading is headed ‘The whole armour of God’

2.1.Without re reading the text ask ‘In what sense do I feel I need God’s armour?’

2.2. What reasons does Paul give for the requirement to put on ‘the whole armour of God’? (remember Paul’s admonition to ‘live as wise . . . for the days are evil’ in last weeks reading Ch5 vs 15-16)

2.2.1.What does Paul mean by: ‘the wiles of the Devil’ (indeed do we believe in the devil?); ‘the rulers, the authorities, … the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’

2.2.2.What does it mean to say that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood but against these ‘Powers’?

2.2.3. Jesus and his contemporaries believed that the material world was suffused with the Spiritual and that all physical things which in a sense had a life of their own (politics, economics, the law), were in some sense ‘governed’ by spiritual forces. So Jesus confronts religious, economic and political ‘powers’ and triumphs over them by the cross (Col 2:15). The best known example of this is Mammon – the power of money. Jesus sees this as so powerful he understands that it stands as a False God – You cannot serve God And Mammon.‘We are hopelessly naive about such things’ – Discuss‘The world’s complete inaction over the coming environmental collapse is a clear sign that humanity is held captive by such powers’ – Discuss‘The philosophy called humanism has long been a suitor to man’s pride. It boasts in his natural strength and wisdom, and woos him with promises of grand accomplishments now, and heaven later. God himself has scattered such Babel-builders and proclaimed his pre-eminence for eternity. Confounded for ever be such sons of pride, who trust in the powers of nature as though man with his own bricks and mortar of natural abilities were able to make a way to heaven!’ William Gurnall – The Christian in Complete Armour. ‘We are ignorant and naive about spiritual forces and powers because we have made too much of ourselves and have a poverty stricken view of the majesty of God’ – Discuss ‘[Christianity as properly understood] is subversive relative to every kind of [such] power. . . There is a radical incompatibility between money and Christ. Jesus recommends to his disciples that they have none. Paul shows that it is there simply to be given away. James argues that the money heaped up by the wealthy inevitably results from theft that victimizes the worker. Money is in itself a force of deviation. It is one of the main objects of covetousness . . . the root of all sins and evils’ Jacques Ellul – The Subversion of Christianity ‘Our naivety regarding Money has in large part led the church to its current state’ – Discuss


3.  Paul’s remedy is ‘Be strong in the LORD and in the power of His might’

3.2. Why is this necessary, given the nature of the ‘powers and principalities’

3.2.3.He says once again that ‘the days are evil’ vs 13 cf

3.3. In what sense is Wisdom, as we discussed it last week Key to our proper understanding?

3.4.We are then counseled to put on the armour of God – [you may wish briefly to think about David rejecting the armour of Saul but coming at Goliath, in the name of the LORD] – the armour has six elements – Discuss what each one means – what is anything does its ‘armour equivalent’ – belt, breastplate etc. suggest?



3.4.5.Readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace



3.4.8.The Word of God

Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong

Sermon for Sunday August 19th – Evensong
Exodus 2:23 – 3:10
Hebrews 13:1-17

‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.’
Exodus 3:5-6

Standing on Holy Ground and, like Moses, we do not know it. Yet Unlike Moses, there is no fear of God before our eyes.

A good friend of mine some years ago took her family to see the USA. Amongst other things they visited Las Vegas, just to look. My friend’s eldest son, a young man of a sensitive disposition, walked into one of the Mega casinos, blindingly lit by a million 100 watt bulbs, turned to his mother and said, ‘It’s true, we’re doomed’. He was of course referring to the obscene use of electrical energy when understood against a background of rapid climate change, but he could have been talking about the debauched human behaviour he saw presented there – they are not disconnected.
Amongst my interests, I have for the last 25 or so years had a keen interest in Climate Science. I was teaching on it in High School long before most people had heard of the Greenhouse effect – and I am a sceptic. Not a sceptic about the science which is not only compelling, but whose predictions are coming true at an accelerating rate. No, rather as an observer of human nature, I am sceptical of those who suggest that ‘humanity’ for want of a better word, is in any sense capable of doing anything to change the course of events. Of course such scepticism is academic now as the total collapse of the planet’s complex systems of which we are the beneficiaries is already well underway. But how have we come to such a dreadful place?
Thinking upon this this week, I was reminded of a Victorian tale – the only novel written by Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Grey. In it Wilde depicts a young aesthete who has his portrait painted and muses that he would sell his soul if he might retain his youthful beauty and the painting age in his place. Well that of course is what happens. Grey hides the painting in his attic and embarks on an increasingly debauched hedonistic life, not denying himself any of life’s ‘pleasures’ – a life without boundaries, which leads him finally to committing murder. In the final scenes he comes face to face with the painting, it is utterly scarred and disfigured beyond imagining. Trying vainly to redeem himself, Grey attacks the painting with a knife and is found the next morning by his servants – dead, with a knife through his own heart, so hideously disfigured that he is unrecognisable except for his jewelry, and the painting, never seen previously by anyone except Grey – restored to its original beauty.
And I couldn’t help reflect, that the creation is our painting in the attic. That in our desire to satiate our desires – something understood as a universal human right in what passes for contemporary ethical discourse – we have as Grey did, destroyed our own souls and that this is rapidly confronting us in the environmental devastation for which we are responsible. But of course we do not live in an age that believes in the Soul in any meaningful sense. We have no sense that Christ by his sacrificial death, by the shedding of his blood, has created within us something that is, to use an unfashionable word, Holy. Something which must be treated with reverence and awe. We do not think that most of what we do can in any sense harm us, unless we are talking about abusing our bodies, in the crudest of senses through bad diet or drug abuse of one kind or other. We have no sense that everything we do with our bodies is of Great Significance. We have little sense of what Jesus is saying when he says that the eye is the lamp of the body. THat, as we have destroyed the creation, we also have souls which we can all too easily destroy

Just this week, I marked my first anniversary as Vicar here. On that rather chilly evening of my installation, there was a moment that had a profound echo in this last verse of our reading from the letter to the Hebrews. I knelt before the bishop who handed me his license, passing on his legal authority to me, with these words ‘Receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’. And as I read the passage set for this evening I couldn’t help think of that phrase ‘cure of souls’ in the light of the exhortation to all Christians to Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. It was that bit that was addressed to me – that I am to watch over souls and will have to give an account of my work to God.
It reminded me of something my first Spiritual Director told me – she was a very wise and skilled Priest, but she herself had found herself given a sharp reminder of the significance of her work once with her own Spiritual Director. Christine had been having a particularly rough time with her congregation and casually said ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for the salvation of their souls’ – and her director came back to her as quick as a flash – ‘whatever gave you that idea – of course you are!’

But really?? Salvation of Souls? Isn’t that just a bit old hat? How many of us would respond with any degree of seriousness to the counsel I was given by a friend just over a week ago. I had been considering going to what promised to be a rather tetchy and rancourous public debate on one of the ‘issues of the day’, and my friend said – ‘Don’t go – you need to guard your soul’’ In our world it is hard to take the idea of guarding our soul with much degree of seriousness I mean, seriously – could exposing oneself to such an event as a public debate have a deleterious impact on one’s soul? Why, it has a quaint almost Victorian ring to it – it seems like an idea that we have pretty much discarded – but is that because we have sold our souls and have little idea of what we have lost? That we have lost any sensitivity of the soul, that our souls are dead or at the very least barely clinging on to life.
Thinking of the soul of the modern world, not only Dorian Grey, but of course the tale of Dr Faust comes to mind. Someone who to all external appearances has much, just like us, yet is dissatisfied with life – so he does a deal with the devil – the devil can have his soul if he can have limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. The Prince of this world is always ready to cut such a deal. And we may well say that we live in a Faustian age, where the pursuit of knowledge and sensual pleasure has led to the destruction of the soul. ‘We must have all we desire – we must cast off all restraint. The strictures and Wisdom of Scripture are but infantile attempts to stop us enjoying ourselves.’ We say, until at the last we discern that it has all turned to dust in our hands

I am reminded of the words of the sage from the book of Ecclesiates  Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; . . .Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Whatever my eyes desired. It is perhaps no surprise that an age which has lost touch with any sense of the soul is an age increasingly dominated by spectacle – by the visual – the image is Everything – the Image is God – our eyes are entranced and we do not heed the words of Jesus, that the eye is the light of the soul. That that which we feast our eyes upon can harm us. We think we know better. Not believing in the soul we think that sensuality and reason are all we need – but our reason is like that of Faust and Grey, making foolish bargains, not realising what horrors are happening within. We look outwards – we never visit the portrait in the attic. We do not look at our souls. So entranced are we by what we see – we have no sense that we are being constantly degraded by that which we see – we have no Inner sensitivity

This is revealed for example in the continuing increase in violence in the movies. Whilst it is not possible in simple terms to make the connection between violence in the world and upon the screen – there was a terrifyingly clear note about this in the latest mass killing in the United States at the screening of the Dark Night Rises. When the gunman started his spree – people thought it was part of the movie – the movie was so violent that the external violence was normalised. The level of violence on the screen merely being mimicked by the young man with a gun in the theatre. It was Orson Wells who said of movie violence ‘We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.’ The respect for human life seems to be eroding.” And that was 40 years ago. We are careless with our souls.

And one is thought a spoilsport to suggest this – must I be denied pleasure – that which was once seen rightly as infantile petitioning is in our age understood as the height of rational discourse, encased in the slippery language of rights. Thus when the writer to the Hebrews writes – Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Well such an idea is scoffed at. Indeed even Christians have pretty much given up on the idea of God judging anything or anybody.
Much as we scoff at the idea that watching violence on the big screen in any sense damages us – we similarly think that there is no great harm in having multiple sexual partners in and through life. Violence? Watching people being shot? Oh it’s just Entertainment. Sex? It’s fun, it’s an expression of our sensual nature, but in reality no more than a physical transaction between two consenting adults, in a sense nothing more than shaking hands. As long as both people freely want to, where’s the harm in that? There is no sense of something Other about our lives, about the Holy – something that says, when you live out your life, every action has a profound Spiritual dimension.
It is horribly ironic that in an age where we are increasingly told we must be careful about physical touch – where in England at least teachers are forbidden from giving a crying child a hug, where on the one hand we treat touch as highly dangerous, we seem to imagine that the most profound human contact in being rendered meaningless is ‘harmless’. There is no sense of the Spiritual – there is no sense of the soul. There is little or no sense that sexual intimacy outside of the Given bounds of marriage might in some sense be ‘harmful’, in and of itself. That watching violent movies might harm us. That that which we look upon has the capacity to destroy something which is infinitely precious.
It strikes me that current debates about marriage even within the church completely lack this dimension. Both conservatives with their ‘the bible says’ rhetoric, and liberals with their ‘rights’ rhetoric all singularly fail to acknowledge that sexual union is a profound mystery. That there is more going on than we can see. That it is Holy – that we were Given sexual boundaries – that they were Good and Grace, for we were blind to the Spiritual reality. So we had the Law – thou shalt, thou shalt not – not in a sense of denying pleasure, as this is popularly parodied, but in the sense that here we are touching on the Holy, playing with Fire. We needed to Know where the boundary lay for e could not see it. But to be a Christian is to be anointed by the Holy Spirit – to See that deeper reality – to know what we are doing to our souls. It is to be freely responsible before God, Knowing the nature of reality – Seeing that adultery and fornication, that violence, that deceit, that many many other things trash our souls, spreading chaos, undoing the very fabric of the created order

To be a Christian in this age is to find oneself sometimes the object of scorn – as if it is to be a flat earther – ‘Ah we know so much more nowadays’. Yet rather to be a follower of Christ, to have the merest sense of the Holy, of the Sacred, of the Beauty and fragility of the human soul, makes us Deep Magic people in an age stripped of the deep sensitivity which signals we are spiritually alive – a sense of the Holy. The irony is that those who call Christians flat earthers are engaged in an act of Projection, for all depth has been stripped out of our common approach to this matter of Life. And so such texts as we have heard tonight can seem to us utterly alien.

The Gift of Scripture – the Gift of sitting underneath such ‘Other worldly’ texts as we have heard this evening is that it reminds us that the Life of the World is not as flat and devoid of Ultimate meaning as we have been taught – that when we show hospitality to a stranger, we may well be entertaining angels – that ‘love of money’, or ‘sound financial management’ as we have disingenuously renamed it – harms us. That the ground we are standing upon might in some sense be Holy to the Lord. That we have souls that are so important that we are all to put ourselves into the hands of others, to keep watch over them. That we have been redeemed and sanctified, made Holy that is by one who suffered outside the city gate, for the sake of our souls, the one who is as St Peter reminds us ‘the shepherd and guardian of our souls.

This morning we heard in our Epistle, these words – Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Week after week it seems news comes to us of one Christian leader or another who has fallen. We do a terrible thing when we say, ‘ah but they are just human’ – for that is not human. Such talk reveals that we have become far too comfortable with the painting in the attic, a ghastly parody of the human. I am thankful to GOd for my friend who counseled me to guard my soul, I had not received such counsel for many years. When we hear of those who fall from grace, we should not say ‘Ah but they are just human’ – rather we should ask, ‘Given that the days are evil, who was looking over this man’s soul, who said, for the sake of your eternal Soul do not take this path for what can you give for your soul?’

Dorian Grey realised at the last the horror of what he had done. The coming environmental collapse will horrify the world. We are facing times of deadly seriousness, yet still the sensual spectacle goes on. As the Olympics, our fascination with movies and good food, and the brutal sexualisation of our culture reveals, we are like the Romans at the last, still consumed with bread and circuses. The times have always been deadly serious, but for most of history we have understood the significance of the soul and guarding it – let us strengthen that which remains.

Study notes – Sunday August 19th

Bible Study notes for Sunday August 19th



1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58



(You might like to read all three passages first to get a feel for how they might fit together)

This week we will look in brief at the first two


The theme of this week’s service hasn’t yet been chosen by the All-age worship team, so for the purposes of our study we shall keep in mind “Christ Jesus, who has become for us Wisdom from God” (after 1 Corinthians 1:30)


Read through each text slowly, whilst everyone else listens – (not following in your own bibles) – asking ‘what catches your attention in this passage? Does it leave you with questions?’


[At whatever point you have but a few minutes left for Study, Make sure to leave time at the end to read through in this way at the end – ‘What is Christ saying to his church in these verses?’ is there a message for us at St John’s? Respond in prayer]




  1. Solomon asks for the gift of “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil. We understand a little later that this is called ‘wisdom’ (vss 12, 28)
    1. What do we think of when we think of wisdom?
    2. In what sense is Solomon’s request ‘Wise’ in and of itself? Does our answer suggest a different quality to Wisdom than common understandings of it
    3. What does it suggest is a particular characteristic of Wisdom, given that Solomon must ask for it?
    4. The French philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault spent many years investigating the idea of ‘common sense’ down through the ages. He showed that ‘Common Sense’ is invariably the thinking of those who control the levers of economic power. In what sense does Solomon’s request reveal the Wisdom of God at work acting against such ‘common sense’?
    5. TS Eliot writes this :- The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,

e.The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

o perpetual revolution of configured stars,

o perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

o world of spring and autumn, birth and dying

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust. (Opening stanzas of ‘The Rock’)

We live in an age supremely of ‘information’  – we Know Everything – ironically in a time when according to some, humankind may be about to eradicate not only itself but also much of the rest of the Created order from the face of the Earth. ‘Wisdom’ in Scripture is supremely linked to the Creator (Seen most clearly in Proverbs Chapter 8) Do we find ourselves in agreement with Eliot? Do we live in an age lacking in Wisdom?

  1.         St Paul writes Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil.’
    1. In the light of the one who has become for us ‘Wisdom from God’, what does it mean to live ‘not as unwise, but as wise’?
    2. This passage from Ephesians begins ‘Be imitators of God therefore, as dearly loved children’.
      1. Why does Paul say, ‘As dearly loved children’
      2.  Reflect on the passage given. How does Paul’s counsel relate to being ‘dearly loved children?’
      3. iii.  What does the phrase ‘the days are evil’ mean. Are ‘the days evil’?

iv. Throughout Scripture foolishness is seen as the opposite of Wisdom – ‘The fool says in his heart, there is no God’ – Given that, what does v17 suggest is the nature of Wisdom?

  1. Given that? Is it reasonable to suggest that it is only in relationship with God that we can be Wise? Reflect on John 1:12 – ‘Jesus has become for us ‘Wisdom from God (1 Cor 1:30)’(I take it as given that one can be in relationship with God and act like a fool 🙂 – that is not what is being asked here)
  2. 2.  If that is the case, how does it affect our understanding of the relationship between our Christian Life and the World?

Sermon for Sunday August 12th – 2012. Eleven after Pentecost, Year B

Sermon for Sunday August 12th – 11 after Pentecost – SERMON RECORDING

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

‘Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’
Romans 12:1

“All this stuff about Loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you, is not only an offence against reason, it is also morally reprehensible. It is immoral. True morality calls us for us to defend ourselves against our enemies, and kill them if necessary”

These are the words of Christopher Hitchens, an English writer and commentator and also a leading light amongst the so called new atheists, famous for his last published work, ‘God is not great’. A man of some learning, and unlike one or two others of the new atheists, say  the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a man who has a pretty thorough grasp of theology and what Christianity is really about. Of course one might add that Hitchens died not so very long ago and make some joke about him getting a bit of a shock, but that is really just a silly game.
Because, what Hitchens reminds us of, is that very often, if you want to discover the truth about something, find a well educated and informed opponent of it. Someone who in a sense has staked their all on it being wrong, because such a person may take you far closer to the truth of the matter often than some of the movements most ardent advocates. Hitchens like the philosopher Nietzsche despised Christianity, because at the level of human rationality, he saw what it was about, the to him debasing and humiliating notion, that a human could only be fully human in complete surrender to God, to become the servant of one whose ways are mysterious to us, whose actions often seem capricious and who seems at once to completely affirm the dignity of the human whilst systematically undermining it by calling for our absolute devotion.
Of course like all the new atheists, his understanding of Christianity isn’t perfect, he does in effect set up a straw man and then blow it away, but his understanding of Christian faith is a lot closer to the truth than the understanding of many many Christians, especially in the west. Hitchens’ Straw man of Christian faith was a lot more substantial than many Christian’s version of faith.

The theme of our service today is ‘Unreasonable faith’ – because that is precisely what we as Christians have and HItchens saw that. Yet for many, certainly outside the church and indeed a good few inside, there is a ‘Reasonable Christian faith’ – the sort of Christian faith that is all about the values of polite society justified should you need it, in the person of Jesus the wandering sage – who talks about those highest of human aspirations ‘Love’ Peace, Kindness etc. The Jesus says ‘you know how you want peace, I want the same thing too, being kind to one another is a good idea, so I’m glad you agree with me on that. A Christian faith that ulitmately has no need for Christ, so full of its own proud Reason is it.
This Jesus of this ‘faith’ is utterly Reasonable, he fits beautifully into our world and makes us feel good about our noble aspirations for life, he doesn’t in any sense disturb us.  He is the fulfillment of all that is best in us – but he is a Fake. He is a ‘Jesus’ created by the world to keep him in his place, to stop him stirring things up. He is a ‘Jesus’ conformed to the World. And he bears absolutely no relation to the Jesus of the Gospels

Imagine for a moment that you are out in town, say in the Octagon and you meet someone who has set up a little soap box, perhaps in front of the cathedral (can we imagine that?) and is loudly, but not too loudly, declaiming. ‘Love is the answer!’, ‘Murder, adultery, lying and stealing are Bad things!’ Be at Peace with one another, Love one another.’ Well I guess you will probably think him slightly eccentric, but you’ll be glad he is confirming your sense of what is good and right and wrong and I guess almost everyone else will think the same thing. All of that fits within our Reasonable understanding of the World. Christian faith we will think is the most utterly reasonable thing, and for the life of the world we can’t understand why churches are full to overflowing.
Yet, reasonably then, what is the point of going to church to hear what we already believe to be true, to confirm you in your view of the world – we may as well go play golf, and of course Jesus would be very happy, because you would be happy and that is all that this Reasonable Jesus cares about, he doesn’t demand our worship – he just wants us to try to be good and kind . . . the Fake Jesus, that is.
But the Fake Jesus, does not exist. If we can drag ourselves away those fondly imagined strolls round a golf course, or tramps up a hill, or wherever we were with the Fake Jesus, and back to the Octagon, the scene has changed, all of a sudden someone is saying “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The vast majority of people would be Disturbed by such a person – we’d be calling for the Emergency Psychiatric service. “What do you mean – you’ve come down from heaven? You’re flesh and blood like us – hey don’t I recognise you – weren’t we at school together Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Are you Nuts?? Fetch back that Jesus who told us to be good! We liked him! [Actually the real Jesus Never told anyone to be good – indeed he said only God is Good]

No one is Good – try that for a comforting thought, or something to make Christianity credible to someone in the modern era. No, We have to face up to it. Jesus is the most utterly unreasonable and disturbing presence the world has ever known. Not because he is a teacher of timeless ethical truths, such a person disturbs nothing. No he is Utterly unreasonable and Utterly disturbing because he is the one who came down from heaven – the Incarnation of the One who created the world, breaking into the world to put into effect through his own death and resurrection the recreation of the World. He comes to announce the disturbance to end all disturbances – the end of the world as we know it – to pronounce it to be under God’s Judgement and to declare the New Creation, made present in him, there and then, Here and Now.
In the three years of Jesus’ ministry, nothing less is happening than God’s New Creation, walking the Earth in flesh and blood and everything is being forced either to conform to that which is amongst them, or to reject it. There is no middle ground – we either Crown him as King, and submit to him, or we Crucify him. This indeed is the very choice that is put to us all by Pontius Pilate – ‘Here is Your King’ And Jesus continues to force this issue on us. “Whoever believes Has eternal Life”  The real Jesus is Alive and Disturbing us now. The Fake Jesus? – well “Resurrection?? Come on!  No he was a good person, just like me, but he is long dead and the world has moved on’ . The Fake Jesus is long dead and the world goes on. Whereas the Truth of the gospel is that the World came to a grinding halt when Jesus rose from the dead – the World was pronounced dead – he has moved on, down through the years and so comes over and over and over to disturb us, to say our lives and the life of this world is under the final judgement of God and that God’s New Creation is present in Him – to call us – to Force us to choose.

We don’t like the idea of being forced to choose, but as I said last week, this is not a religious game. This is Life and Death. David Chose the path of Death as we heard, ‘the sword shall never depart from your house’ And so all hell breaks loose and Absalom his beloved son is murdered.
When we meet with the Risen Jesus, he disturbs us. We are Forced to choose – to choose to put our life into his hands for whatever he wants to do with it. When Jesus says ‘Follow me’  – he doesn’t say ‘Please’. It’s not a request, it’s a command. He confronts us with the terrifying truth that this Christian Life is not about us, it’s about Him. So we try to reject it. We nail this Life to a cross, kill our enemy, kill the one who is disturbing our comfortable lives and then , don’t you know it He is raised from the dead! There is no escaping God’s new Creation made visible in our Risen Lord and all people everywhere are forced to choose, either to conform to God’s Future, or to perish with the World that is already pronounced dead.

And here is the rub, that all those who choose to conform to that Life, find themselves in exactly the same position, rejected by the old order that is passing away,  we find the world trying to do exactly that which it did to Jesus, to do to us, to try and keep us in our place, playing the game by the rules the World sets for us.
And when authentic faith comes along – when the Spirit of Christ is alive and active in his people, then the World stops looking on the church as a kind if slightly dotty maiden aunt who can be consigned to a rest home before she expires, and starts to realise that it has a fight on its hands. Think for a moment – if you asked someone you knew who wasn’t christian if nailing Jesus to the cross was reasonable, I guess they’d probably say – ‘Oh, folk were so barbaric then  – it was a terrible thing to do’ But Christian faith says that the death and resurrection of Jesus was The Most Reasonable Event in History. Christian faith takes what is in the understanding of the world a dreadful immoral act, and makes it the lynchpin of all of History. So much for Morality. If we think that it is very unreasonable to kill someone for what we call Christian faith, then it is clear we don’t understand our faith at all. This is why I say it is worth listening to Christopher Hitchens critique of Christianity. In a real sense he got it and it appalled him. ‘Hate you enemies, kill them if necessary’. As far as the World is cocerned that is the Reasonable thing to do

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Tell us some nice moral platitudes Jesus, tell us not to murder or lie or steal, tell us not to murder or commit adultery as Moses did, don’t bother us with this bread of heaven nonsense 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Look you son of a carpenter, don’t come around claiming you are from heaven, we know you – we know where you fit, get back in your box kid. ANd they nailed him to a Cross, and put him in a tomb and rolled the stone across and said, well that’s seen to him! Let’s get back on with our lives.
The other night William Willimon talked about a play where a man, Mr Smith, commits suicide – he wants more than anything for his life to end. So he shoots himself. The scene goes blank. But then the lights come up. The man is sprawled on the floor and behind him is a figure behind a desk with a large filing cabinet. Mr Smith, to his horror finds he is not dead – ‘Gabriel’, says the figure behind the desk, ‘bring me the file on Mr Smith. Mr Smith if you’d like to take a seat, we have all the time in the world’ There is No escape from the One who lives for ever, the Real Jesus.

The fake Jesus of Reasonable faith, we can and should put in a box and forget about. If that is our Jesus, then the sooner we abandon him the better.  For, the Real Jesus they put in a tomb – the scene went black – and then there he was again, Utterly unreasonably Alive for Ever – saying then, saying now “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And so as his Unreasonable people, we Choose Not to play golf or go for a stroll  – but to come to this Strange building, engage in practices that make no sense in a world which thinks it is its own life, which thinks it will go on and on – and to Receive Eternal Life afresh in Word and Sacrament. To be conformed to Him.

Sermon for Sunday August 5th 2012 – 10 after Pentecost Year B – The Serving Heart

Sermon for Sunday August 5th – 10th after Pentecost
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51
John 6:24-35

‘The Serving Heart’

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Matthew 7.21-23

This week we have been especially blessed here in Dunedin by the ministry of William Willimon, a Bishop and teacher of the United Methodist Church in Alabama who has been the guest lecturer for the Thomas Burns memorial lectures. If you haven’t heard him yet, and I strongly recommend that you do, then he will be speaking 3 more times this coming week.

It was during his first lecture that as often happens with me, he said something that triggered a stream of thought that for a moment took me away from what he was saying. It’s a dangerous habit, losing concentration in sermons, God may get a word in edgeways! I remember that I was called to ordained ministry in that manner – so PAY ATTENTION 🙂
Well Will was talking about how the presence of Jesus is disturbing and how in the  modern world which we have designed to do away with the need for God, this is especially true. And I thought, ‘how true that is’ – about how when folk say to me, ‘so what brought you to NZ?’, and I say ‘the call of God’ – you can tell they’re disturbed – ‘it scares the hell out of them’, I chuckled to myself, and in an instant heard as clear as a bell the LORD say ‘and I hope it scares the hell out of you too!’.
It was a sharp and necessary reminder that we’re not here to play religious games, to please ourselves. No. This Life that we are All called into is Life and Death – it’s to do with Ark’s which Uzzah touches and perishes on the spot – it is to do with Ananias and Sapphira who don’t realise that Sin is Death – it is replete with the terrifying call to Be Holy, as He is Holy. It is to be called bay and into that which is utterly Strange and odd to us and most disturbingly, upon which we have to stake our all. And so I was reminded that the call to Priestly ministry, is an echo of Baptism to leave everything and follow Jesus and Him alone, and that should scare the hell out of us.

And if that comes as a shock, well Good and also, Bad – where have we been all these years if we think otherwise? Week by week by week we are immersed in this story – it’s all there, in the narrative of Scripture. We are given examples of the lives of those who are called to follow – of Peter, of Abraham and these stories are given to Orient our story with the Story of this Holy and perturbing God as they struggle to do – trying to deal with this Holy God, and getting it wrong with sometimes appalling consequences – Abraham who for fear of the Egyptians passes his wife off as his sister with terrible consequences for the Egyptians – the blasphemous words of Peter ‘this shall never happen to you’ and the Holy is revealed – ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ What are you trying to do, getting in front of me – get out of my way Peter – you don’t know a thing! Did we miss this? Have we been asleep? Well here’s another go, so Wake Up! We are called – and that should not evoke pride, but Holy Fear.

And we see this worked out in the story of David. HIs fall is Directly related to his loss of the Sense that his ‘work’ is Not about him, it is about the Holy and Strange God of Israel.     As the short lived dynasty of King Saul begins to crumble, Samuel announces to Saul ‘You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; – You haven’t done what God called you to – You’ve done what seemed good to you – the LORD is looking for a King who will only do what seems good to his LORD – someone after his own heart. And so David comes onto the scene. and we know his story – we know it so well – Goliath – triumph – Bathsheba – disaster – but have we really heard its message? I wonder. So schooled are we in breaking this huge story of God into little stories of David, we miss the thread that is running through the whole. We are all too aware of the sins of David – he commits adultery, he tries to manipulate Uriah the Hittite, he fails and so murders Uriah, he then takes Bathsheba to be his wife – we are so aware of his sins and then we hear David’s lament in Psalm 51 – Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight and we think ‘Huh?’ but what about poor old Uriah? What about Bathsheba, what about the child who dies as a result of all this [once again those who set the lectionary have chosen to spare us the full horror of what happens when the Life of God is denied – to our great loss] – we are so aware of his sins, that we completely miss his Sin – what is at the heart of it all? What is at the heart of it all?

But it is there in the text, clear as the day, if we will but read the whole story carefully. David as we know starts out well and time and time again – 6 times in all we read 1 Sam 23:2 ‘David enquired of the LORD’; 1 Sam 23:4 ‘David enquired of the LORD; 1 Sam 30:8 ‘David enquired of the LORD; 2 Samuel 2:1 ‘David enquired of the LORD’; 2 Samuel 5:19; 2 Samuel 5:23 ‘David enquired of the LORD. David’s heart is turned towards God and it is the heart of a Servant – What woulds’t thou have me to do? Over and Over again he asks ‘what am I to do?’ – and then a couple of weeks ago we read ‘Now when the king [the narrator suddenly calls him, The King] was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Things are easy now – and now he can manage affairs for himself – his heart is no longer God’s – David’s heart is no longer turned towards his LORD, David is ‘The King’ . He asks himself – ‘What shall I do?’ – not asking ‘What would you have me do?’ No longer ‘inquiring of the LORD.’ And Nathan says – do whatever seems good to you – but the LORD steps in and sends Nathan back to David to try and keep him on track Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ I Never told you to build me a Temple – why did this thought even enter your head? You think you know what its all about?? “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” I never told you to do that stuff – get the hell out of here – says Jesus.

David’s Heart has turned – he does not enquire of the LORD, he does what seems good to him – and it is brutal. the opening verses of our Old testament reading Are Brutal – 26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
David’s heart has turned – he has forgotten he is a Servant of the LIving God – and he is now serving himself – over and over again in this story of David Uriah and Bathsheba we read – and David sent  – he saw Bathsheba – he sent for her – he sent for Uriah – he sent Uriah – he sent for Bathsheba. Now he is no longer David the servant of God, now he is the king, who serves himself. And his Root Sin is Not the murder and adultery – it is that he has decided to live for himself – to take the apple which was not given.

It was a few years ago I learnt a couple of sharp lessons in this regard. The first happened on a family holiday in Bavaria. We were staying on a campsite and it being Bavaria, the word Campsite doesn’t really do it justice. It was sumptuously appointed and at the heart was a restaurant. It looked fabulous and I was a bit put off, and what is more the menu was in German and I hadn’t a clue. But we took the plunge – and walking in the door were met in impeccable English and menus in English – everything was done for our comfort – we were to be Served. And so the evening passed – my beer glass mysteriously kept refilling, my plate also.
Until pretty late on in the evening. I’d emptied my plate for the severalth time and for a moment, the waiters weren’t in sight. So I helped myself. {Echoes here of Saul}
Big Mistake. the Waiter appeared from nowhere wagging his finger – partly I guess out of shame – but I had broken the code. It was his place to serve, not mine.  Well that was how it was with God and David. David was to serve God, but God would serve David. He was Not to help himself – And through Nathan he gets told in no uncertain terms –  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and [I] gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. NOw get the hell out of here – ‘the sword shall never depart from your house . . . because you have despised me’ I gave you everything you needed, but you are my servant – and you acted as if you could serve yourself.
This Christian Life  – this call to follow Christ – should scare the hell out of us – but all too frequently it doesn’t – we sleep walk  – we start off trying to do something for God, something he might appreciate – not asking, just doing, and then we end up doing something for ourselves. HOw many serve themselves under the guise of serving Christ, never having enquired of the Lord. Living as if it wasn’t God who provided, living as if God didn’t exist, and then we wonder why the sword never departs from our house. Doing what seems right in our own eyes – trying to please God, but never asking ‘what would you have me do’ – serving our own idea of God, not the God who speaks and Lives – serving ourselves.
And the problem, our problem David’s problem? David’s heart – he was no longer a man after God’s heart, it was all about David now –  and ‘The LORD sent Nathan’  We all need a Nathan- it is God who sends, not the king – the LORD sent NAthan who skillfully weaves the story of the lamb to unlock the blackness of David’s heart – David is undone by the story. David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And like a Spear Nathan comes back at him ‘YOU are the man’ Who is our Nathan – who unmasks the duplicity of Our hearts?

My second story concerns just this – just before I was ordained I found an excellent Spiritual director, an incredibly Godly and Wise woman – but I wasn’t aware just how good she was until one of my first sessions with her and, well she just undid me – she delved for the reality of my heart and I heard myself say ‘You know, I really think I would prefer to be right and God wrong’ YOU are the man – I was nailed – out of my own mouth, just like David and in that instant it was as if the ground was opening up under me to swallow me. She looked me in the eye and said – ‘You have some praying to do’. And that was it. Well God in his mercy brought me back to himself, but he’s had to do it more than once. ‘You see how it scares the hell out of folk when you say I called you? – I hope it scares the hell out of you too’.
God’s word tells us that there is nothing as deceitful as the human heart – in all of God’s creation, it is that one element that protects its own sovereignty like an angry mother bear with cubs – our hearts are actually the Centre of All that is Wrong in the world. We are called and Baptised and now our lives are entirely at his disposal – that is what Baptism means. It is THE Christian vocation – all that Priestly ministry is is a reminder to us all. This is about all of us. And None of us can be trusted to know the reality of our own hearts – this is why we cannot walk as Christians except together and in mutual accountability. It’s why the church must rigorously test any call to Ordination – and it is why we should be far far more careful with Baptism. Because this is a matter of Life and Death  – We are Servants of the Living God – we live for him alone, baptised as we are into our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, who only does what he sees the Father doing.

So we come to Him, with Hell licking at our tail we have to come to Him – the author and perfector of our faith – When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ What must we do to do the works of God – Lord, what would You have me to do? The question of Faith. It is the first question of Paul when he is converted on the Damascus road – it should be our only question – and Jesus reply? ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ And what is it to believe in Jesus? To Love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength – to wait on His word, to respond to his word, to live by his word – this word that has become bread from heaven for us.

I was reflecting with Jo the other day about that call which should scare the hell out of us, and together we wondered about how do we respond. Those words “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” shake us – they remind us we are not playing religious games – this is Life and Death in the called into the Life and Death of the holy one of Israel – and that it is all too easy to get diverted by what seem good things for us to do. Actions we have chosen – and that faced with that what can we do but pray and pray and pray. We pray till we know we have heard the Lord, we pray with others to hear the Lord, we refuse to act unless we hear his voice of command, and then we pray Lord have mercy, lest we have mis-heard.

The story of Martha and Mary shows us this perfectly – it is not about the active versus the contemplative life – it is about the life of one who does what appears good in her own eyes and one who sits at the feet of Jesus, listening for his Word –  Truly there is need of only one thing, the Good and perfect life giving command of the God, Bread from heaven, and all those who desire it with all their hearts, from them it shall not be taken away. May God so deal with all our hearts that at the last day we hear ‘Good and faithful servant’ – and until that moment, let us remain alert – awake – paying attention to our LORD. Waiting on him with Glad and Obedient hearts