‘Whatsoever does not proceed from faith is sin’
The Christian Life is the Life of Christ. St Paul tells us that we must ‘grow up into the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ Eph 4:13, 1:23 – insofar as we might call our Christian Life a journey, it is into full Christlikeness. That is our the Work given to us – it is the meaning of Jesus’ words ‘to believe in the One [God] has sent’ Jn 6:29
Believing In Jesus is our complete identification With Jesus. And it embraces us in our totality – so much so that St Paul when he speaks of sexual immorality in the Corinthian Church says ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?’ 1Cor 6:15
Believing in Jesus is to be one with him – so Jesus tells us ‘Now this is Eternal Life – that they might know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’ Jn 17:3 To Know Him is to be united in mind body and soul with Him
Put another way – in the fullest sense of the phrase – ‘Christ is our Life, our very being, our Existence’ and to live in that is to live by faith. Not to live in that is Sin – for Christ has taken up all that is Good and True and Beautiful into himself – He is Pure Life. Aside from him there is only Sin and Death
We need to Know this. If we do not, we cannot make any sense of Jesus and our Existence in the world – nor indeed can we understand the warning significance of Jesus’ words to Peter ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with me’. Jn 13:8 For to be washed by Jesus in Baptism – is to be sanctified, made Holy, set apart for God in our entirety – and only that which is so set apart might participate in Christ, Might Know Him.
(As a brief aside, this is the underlying meaning of ‘as I have washed your feet, so you should wash one another’s feet’ Jn 13:14- it is saying Yes to the Body of Christ in its fulness, it is saying Yes to his forgiveness – it is allowing us to forgive one another. In John’s gospel – washing and being washed stand in the place of ‘forgiving sins’ – pointing to the deep meaning of forgiveness. As St Peter calls on the crowd on the day of Pentecost – ‘Repent and be baptised . . . for the forgiveness of your sins’ Acts 2:38
We wash one anothers’ feet to manifest our forgiveness of one another – to give it, and like Peter finally, to receive it. Saying with Peter, ‘you will never wash my feet’ Jn 13:8, is to find ourselves outside of Christ, not having a part with Him. It is to set ourselves apart from His Body, the Church. To be outside of the Church, The Ark of Salvation)
So we come to the Eucharist as we prepare ourselves for the Great Day of Salvation – Yet this day is a day of Darkness – or Night. ‘Judas immediately went out, and it was night.’ Jn13:30
‘The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. At the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations’. Ex 12:40-42
As the Passover and the Exodus prefigured the Great Salvation of God in Christ – so we eat this meal prepared to move on, into the Night of Good Friday, but in Hope – ‘for the darkness is not dark to you: and the night is as bright as the day’. Ps 139:12
And we go – having fed upon the Lamb of God – who takes away the Sin of the World – ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me.’ Jn 6:56,7
And so in Lent we have followed Jesus, but not as it were from afar, observing him, as if he was doing something which we had nothing to do with – rather we follow him into what he does. ‘Where I am going you cannot now come, but you will come after’ Jn 13:36 ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ Jn 12:26
As He has fasted and prayed, so have we – as he goes to the Cross, so will we. For ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Jn 6:68
He is our Life – ‘Let us go with him that we may die with him’ Jn 11:16
There are clergy and occasionally sermons you remember very vividly. One such person was the Revd Gordon Dey – who lived and worked on a very tough outer urban housing estate in Bradford. The sort of place common in the UK where the poor having been uprooted were dumped. As a friend who worked in a similar patch and knew Gordon said, ‘you never lived in such places, you lived on them’ So Gordon faithfully worked amongst those who lived on Holme Wood. And people would say of him, ‘he is a little Jesus’ 🙂 He was a beautiful soul.
I remember Gordon preaching once when I was a curate – he was talking I think about the life of a disciple of Jesus, and recounted his first trip in an airplane. He arrived at eat airport and was thrilled at the sight of the huge sleek glossy airliners, and it was a bit of a comedown to see his own small non descriptor and slightly tatty prop plane – his carriage for this momentous occasion – somehow it didn’t seem important enough.
Well Gordon came to mind in my personal bible reading this week where I discovered St Paul obviously finding the Corinthians less than enamoured of him and his ministry. The argument is clearly about whether or not Paul truly might be called an Apostle, and ambassador of Christ – in other words, one with the authority to teach the Church. Does he seem to observers to be sufficiently impressive?
Yet Paul sets out his case for his authority not in terms of his learning, or his eloquence, or his wisdom – nothing that would catch the eye or attract human praise, but rather in terms of his suffering for the gospel – in other words he affirms his ministry in terms of the ministry of Jesus, and opens his account with the words ‘Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ’
Well, we cannot think of that triumphal procession without considering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem which to the naked eye had little more than the sense of a great slave revolt. This dirty dusty wandering Rabbi – shunned by those in power and authority, at the head of a disreputable band of North Country fishermen, tax collectors and religious zealots.
Paul’s use of the words ‘triumphal procession’ would summon up for his hearers the well known processions of the Roman legions as they paraded their spoils, their foes, their newly enslaved kings and princes. The glitter of the armour, the sound of trampling boots, the golden Roman Eagle held aloft . . . the contrast with Jesus’ triumphal procession could not be more sharp, as St Paul sought to deflate the Corinthian sense of their own importance.
As Christians we don’t travel first class – that is not our way, for our way is the way of Jesus, and by the standards of the world – well it gives off a bad smell. As St Paul puts it ‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’
Watch the rabble with Jesus – imagine the smell . . . with whom would we walk?
Paul in his epistle to the Philippians puts this in words which are so familiar to us, but which we may flee from embodying – ‘Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus . . . may you be governed by the same attitude, which is not the path of worldly success, but that of worldly self denial – of humility – of remembering that we are dust, as we were reminded at the beginning of Lent. You are of the Earth – earthy, humus, humility. The Earthiness of Jesus and his disciples is about the reality of our human condition.
And Jesus, unlike the first Adam, does not reach out to grasp equality with God – rather he takes the downward path, falling into the ground to die. Those who are going with him, the aroma of Death to the World, but of Life to those who are being Saved – leading all who would follow in what only the shock of Easter will reveal as Triumphal procession – when to use the words of Mary, he will exalt that which is humble and meek
Let the same mind be amongst you as was in Christ Jesus – Jesus is our Way, in His Life and in His Death – and we follow Him, all the way, as we will enact this coming week.
We follow Jesus in triumphal procession – through the hard disciplines of Lent – to Good Friday – learning also to lay down our own lives for Christ’s sake and the gospel, being seeds that fall to the ground to die, to bear much fruit.
Having the Mind that is in Christ is a different way of seeing and living in the world – one in dependence on the one who leads us – God in Christ
Isaiah’s servant of the LORD a foretelling of Christ reveals much of what this looks like
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
To follow in the way of Jesus is to awaken each morning to teach us – our first words each day should be those of Samuel -Speak Lord, your servant is listening, for in truth everything that is life giving and Good comes from the Word of the Lord. It is to sit eating up on the Word – taking time to begin our day reading form the Word, and then responding
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
If we follow the story Israel through the wilderness, we find them continually rebelling against the life giving word of God. Rebelling against his instructions, ‘do these things and your will live’. To follow in the way of Jesus, having the mind of Jesus is only to do what we see the Father doing, and not to reject it – although that might land us in bother with those around us
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
For God’s Servant, the one walking in the way of Jesus knows The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; And that further fills them with resolves – therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me;
As I have been at pains to point out during Lent, we do not watch Jesus in his time in the wilderness, in his passion, in his suffering and death, we are not simply observers – for ‘wherever I am, there my servant will be also. We are identified with Jesus by our baptism, made his, and living His Life in the World.
It is not glossy and First Class – it looks like nothing to those who are perishing – but to those who are sign saved it is the Wisdom of God – the Way of the Cross – to which we turn our hearts and minds in these coming days, as God in Christ leads us in triumphal procession
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 Lent 5 – Passion Sunday – Year B (2018)
“Follow your Passion” (?)
As we remember, last Sunday was Mothering Sunday – the fourth in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we enter Jerusalem with Jesus at the beginning of Holy Week. But what of this week? What Sunday is the fifth in Lent?
The answer is Passion Sunday . . . So today I want to think about Passion – for certainly it is a word that is used a great deal nowadays. Just the other day I received from a school some details of the election of Parent governors – and the first person began by saying ‘how passionate’ they were about education. Every other advert at resent seems to me seems to offer you something, for your passion. Being passionate about things is generally thought to be a good thing – we are told to ‘follow our passion’ . . . but what does it meant follow our passion? Probably not what we think . . .
For the Word Passion comes from the Latin Pati – Passio – and is a distinctively Christian Word, and we should always be alert when words which properly belong to our Tradition get used more widely, because often they lose their power, even completely reversing their meaning. For Pati, or Passio means ‘to suffer’, which is immediately evident the moment we think of ‘the Passion of Jesus’ – For today we enter Passiontide – the sharp end of Lent – Jesus’ suffering and the Cross looms ahead.
As our final hymn will say today – ‘And in the garden secretly, And on the cross on high, Should teach His brethren, and inspire. To suffer and to die.’
To be Passionate about anything is to be prepared to suffer for it – we may well say that this is the true meaning of Love – to be prepared to suffer for . . . think for example of elderly couples where either the husband or wife is incapacitated in some way, and how the other quietly suffers in serving them. It is an echo of The Passion.
Put another way, our Passion is that for which we sacrifice our lose our Life. it is something we give our life for – we sacrifice many good things, for the Best thing, the supreme thing. The greater the Passion, the greater the Sacrifice. A good sign of True Passion is where seemingly good things things have been given up for the Best thing, sacrificed for it.
If we take Life remotely seriously, we will make sacrifices. Put another way, anyone who is even half alive, paying attention is inherently religious, sacrificing for the sake of that which we love best. Suffering now the loss of things in the present for future gain.
So perhaps we may ask, are our passions worthwhile? Is ‘my passion’ worth suffering for? Giving up your life for? What is its true value? Just asking that question shows how shallow our use of the word has become . . . Not so very long ago I was talking n a high school where they’d just had their ‘Passion Project Week’ – and I saw people ‘passionate about Dr Who, for example . . . Passionate about Texting . . . these are our passions revealed – what we spend our days and hours caught in . . . what we spend our Lives on . . . seeking to gain our lives and losing them
the Scriptures always point us to Jesus, ‘who for the joy set before him, endured the Cross and its shame. That Suffering was worth it for the goal
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; He learned what it truly meant to live a Life fully in accord with the Goodness of God . . . this is the deep meaning of Obedience – one who Hears the Word of God and does it
. . . and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . His Faithfulness to God becomes a source of Life for all who do the same – hear the word and do it, whatever the cost
Through suffering . . . As I said at the beginning of Lent, we follow Jesus in Lent through prayer and fasting and almsgiving – there is a certain suffering involved in this, self denial. We may, indeed we should get tired and hungry as we learn to direct our Passions properly towards the source of Life – God in Jesus Christ, for as Jesus said ‘Where I am going you cannot now come, but you will come after’ Following Christ without suffering and difficulty is not following him at all. The World is no friend to Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Jesus does not go to the cross that we may enjoy a life of ease and a free pass into heaven, rather he goes to prepare a way, which he calls a hard and narrow way – he opens the door through the suffering of his body, that we may enter in by that same way.
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
This is the Goal – the honour that comes from the Father. His Well Done!. Is it ours?
What does it mean to serve Jesus? Surely at the very least it means not serving ourselves – or we might say ‘not following our passions’ It means Obeying him, It means conforming our Life to his – as I said a few months ago to our Youth Group – being a Christian is about becoming more and more like Jesus . . .
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’
This is no small thing – faced with the cost of following Jesus, many many turn back – they fall back on Passions which demean their status as bearers of the Image of God – they chase after idols – sacrificing their lives, but for what?
Jesus shows us the way – he pours out his life for Goodness, For Truth, for Beauty, For Healing, For Wholeness, For True Peace . . . for what are our lives being poured out for? We cannot journey well through Lent without asking these questions of ourselves. We cannot find true Easter Joy, unless we have discovered the Healing Depths of Good Friday – that our lives are found in losing them, that the Way of Life is the Way of Death.
Years ago I remember listening to a haunting recording of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude – it was played on a reel to reel tape recorder, and a small spool of tape. This was the Christmas letter from a school friend of my father – named John Bennifield. It was haunting because John had recorded his Christmas letter because he was going blind, and could no longer see to write. Thinking back, he can only have been in his mid-forties as my Father was at that time.
John came to mind this week as I pondered our readings, not least our readings from the book of Numbers, because of his occupation. John lived in what was then Rhodesia, and he was in charge of the Snake education Programme – something certain to draw the interest of a young teenage boy – but indeed anyone. I remember him talking about Black Mambas and how they would hang around in trees and drop on you!
Snakes are universally feared – it is wired deep into us . . . and the association between Snakes and Trees – say the Serpent in the Garden and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or, the Tree of Life is obvious if you look carefully at a tree . . .
Tree roots are deeply suggestive in this respect and if like us all you are as it were wired to be on the look out for snakes, then the association with trees is clear! And here is a picture form an ancient Scandinavian tradition making it explicit – those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now.
Trees in all imaginations Present Life to us – so the Snakes which are associated with Death are at the roots working away at the source of Life. (For more on this and the Fatherhood of God, come to tonight’s talk on The Lord’s Prayer )
So to our reading from the book of Numbers and we find the Israelites doing what they like to do. Having been rescued from Egypt, brought from the place of death to the place of Life, they are complaining about their rations. (At one point in the narrative they dream of Egypt as a place of cucumbers and melons – forgetting that it was a place of Slavery and death. Perhaps in our 40 days of Lent, we too are a little weary of our rations?)
But this is a complaint against God, against Life itself and so their soul being weary of the bread, weary of Life, they encounter death in the form of the Snakes.
And God saves them through the agency of the Bronze snake. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Picture]
What is going on here? First we are reminded that Sin leads to death. When we live in contradiction to the deep Goodness of things, perhaps with grumbling rather than gratitude as in the case of the Israelites, things go bad. The 10 Commandments as we heard last week are given ‘that we might Live before God’ As I said then, it’s not arbitrary, its written into the fabric of Creation – murder, commit adultery, dishonour your parents, fail too rest, worship the work of your hands – aim at anything apart from the highest Good, that is the Life of God, and things will not turn out well for you.
As St Paul puts it – the wages of Sin is Death . . . and God is constantly perturbed by Israel – the prophet Ezekiel declares the words of God -‘Oh Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ Sin is perverse, it makes no sense . . . Death itself epitomises this meaninglessness. So come the snakes, death reigns.
But what is it with the bronze snake? Well the snake is dead! Death is revealed for what it is – meaning less and empty! Death itself is symbolised as Dead – and so you live. This is the meaning of the Bronze snake, the destruction of death. And so they live.
Which brings us of course to our Gospel reading – ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up‘, The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – Not Punishment – Consequences which we who were sold in slavery to Sin could not bear
. . . that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. to believe is to identify ourselves with Jesus – to be baptised into that death which he suffers . . .
For what do we see here, but The one who cannot die submits himself to death, so that we who are In Him who otherwise can and will die – Might Live! The only one who cannot die submits himself to death – so we join ourselves to him to make a journey we could not make
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
God in himself – in his fruit – in His Son – in Love opened the door to Life from Death – all that look upon him . . .
Believing in Jesus is to have the eyes of our heart, to direct the gaze of our heart and allow it to rest upon him – as St Paul said in our epistle last week ‘we proclaim Christ and him crucified’ – as he says elsewhere in the same letter ‘ I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified – the Wisdom of God – and the power of God‘. that we who were dead in Sin, might be raised to newness of Life in him
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,– NOT to punish the world in Jesus for its sinfulness – 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. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. . . . and still we see the perversity – that we may still choose to direct the gaze of our hearts elsewhere. Yet – before there was no choice where we looked – now, Light floods in and we may Live in the Light of his Saving Love. Still God calls people to Repentance – to turn from wickedness and Live . . .
Lent is our time for such repentance – preparing our hearts for the Joy of Easter
As we prepare our hearts for Easter – let us gaze unflinchingly upon Christ Crucified – Mystery of mysteries, Joy of Joys, Wonder of Wonders – The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – The one who cannot die submits himself to death
And so may we be ready to sing the Easter Hymn with Joy –
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple”
When I was a teenager, I sang in the village church choir, twice every Sunday – and I remember in particular one sermon where the Vicar told us that whilst they’d been at Vicar School they’d made a habit of criticising the Scriptures and crossing bits out with which they didn’t agree. This was a popular pastime amongst clergy trained in the late 50s and early 60s. He said that there wasn’t much left when they’d finished.
Well my mind went back to that this week when – I must confess – I crossed three words out of our Gospel book! Not however because I disagreed with them, but because they are not in the original text in any version. Stay awake for a few moments longer and I’ll tell you what you missed, and why . . .
Jesus comes to the Temple in Jerusalem and if we know our Scriptures we know that John moves this account of the Jesus cleansing the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ public ‘ministry’ – Some ministry! This extraordinary – even Violent act, John sees fit to put at the beginning of his gospel, and we must always remember that John and all the other gospel writers are very very careful with their words – far more careful than we are as a culture. If John does this, it is for a Very Good Reason. Simply put, John puts this at the beginning as the Herald of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, His Work which he sees the Father doing – cleansing and purifying. Why?
Well you cleanse and purify something that has gone to the bad. ‘Tidy your room!’ we know the story from of old, I trust, unless we now run round after our youngsters tidying up after them . . . more of that anon also. Things need putting right, and that is what Jesus has come to do, and it isn’t necessarily going to be pretty – and the significance of the Temple cannot be underestimated. The Temple is the very centre of the Life, the Existence of the people of God. The imagery constantly used of it from Genesis to Revelation is of the Source of streams of living water. It is The Place. The Beating Life giving heart of all Culture and Life amongst God’s people – it is the Source of the Goodness of God – or it should be . . . but it has gone to the Bad and so was a source of darkness, of evil.
Human life is utterly religious – even the atheists one way or another replay ancient religious ways of being in the World – it is Fundamental, Foundational, and so if it goes Bad, then Everyone needs to watch out – for the flood is coming.
The thing was that no-one seemed to see it, although the prophets had certainly pointed it out – the last prophetic word of the Old Testament was that the Lord would come to his temple to purify the sons of Levi -that is what Israel waited for, but for almost everyone, nothing would have seemed untoward on the day Jesus turns up. There are the animals available of purchase for the sacrifices (note by the way that Mary and Joseph bROught, not bought two turtle doves of the sacrifice . . .) And there are the money changers seated . . . Not as it is in almost every modern translation ‘seated at their tables’, but ‘seated’ Period. I crossed out the words ‘at their tables, because that is not what John wrote, and the Evangelists are Very careful with their words, for their words are light and Life. The money changers are seated . . . “so?” you may ask? “does it matter??”. Why does John say they are seated?
We are back to that question of Authority again, ‘who has the authority?’ and the answer is The One who is seated. We have a Cathedral – after Cathedra – Chair – whose Chair? The Bishop’s. The Cathedral is the Place of Authority of the Bishop – this is why the health of the Cathedral is of Fundamental Importance . . . I’m told that if you ever get pulled over by the police, the Best way to handle it is to get out of your car and get to the police car so that the officer is sat down – in their place of Authority. Having worked behind a desk as a teacher you become very aware of the power dynamic of the one who is seated – and Finally, What does Isaiah Behold in the Temple? I Beheld the LORD seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and the hem of his robe filled the Temple.
And Jesus comes to the Temple and sees who ‘seated’? The money changers . . . And we may remember how The Temple is a microcosm of The Creation, and ask who has the authority in the World in which we live?? Who is seated? To what do we pay true allegiance on our church? What is seated in our own hearts? When Mammon, the abomination of desolation, is enthroned . . . when Religious Life is corrupted by Money – watch out! The flood is coming.
And Jesus actions are that ‘Wake Up!’ ‘Pay Attention! call as we shall see in a few moments
The other text which may have caught our attention today is another familiar text, the Ten Commandments, or better ‘Ten Words’ – For the Words of God are Light and Life. As Jesus says to the Lawyer who gives the standard summary of the Law – ‘Do these things and you shall live!’
Jesus’s coming to the Temple is undoubtedly dramatic – and so are these Words of Life. unfortunately we have taken them out of context – for we are told that after the last Word is given . . .
‘When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’’
Why? Because this stuff leads to Life – ignoring it leads to Death, and like the Universal Religious Instinct – these are not arbitrary rules given by a ‘god’ who just pops into existence -these are Universal Truths. Fundamental – Life and Death. Do these things and you shall live
‘I brought you out of the Land of Egypt’ I have brought you to Life from Death – I am the Source of Life and your existence – do not lose Sight of me. No other Gods – NO IDOLS – Don’t let yourself get distracted by ‘gods’ who cannot save. Do not Make things and then treat them as if They give you life, as if they are your life. Carved images – cell phones – take your pick . . . Do not take my Name in Vain – God is The Ultimate Significance – do NOT trash my name by attaching it to your petty feeble schemes – can You give Life?? Only with Fear and Trembling declare – ‘Thus saith the LORD!’ ‘or worse – God is with us . . . as was written on the helmets of German troops in WWI, God is on MY side . . . REST . . . we must ask if we have completely lost sight of this in our 24/7 society. On those nights when sleep flees, I am all too aware of cars going and going and trucks at Yvette Williams through the night and the endless hum of the Air Con form next door, and we live in a quiet part of town. Only the demons have no rest – what can we say of a ‘city that does not sleep’?
Honour your father and mother that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you – This is the First commandment with a promise . . . and yet I spend far far too much time with people who are abandoned by their children . . . something a couple of generations ago we would have thought reprehensible is now normalised. Why this command? Because your parents are through God the source of your very existence, not the toys they gave you or the experiences or whatever – their Very Life was poured into you – into each one of us. None of us is an Island, and who we are is utterly inseparable from our parents, and to deny that is to deny our very existence – it is an act of collective Suicide – no culture will persist long in the land where parents are not honoured, where the elderly are seen as bing ‘past it’.
The first Five Words are all Do This! Do This! and you will Live. The next five are the Do Not’s – one word in the Hebrew to sharpen it up. Yet they are the outflow of the first five – Keep the first five and you will keep the rest. Whoever fails in one part of the Law breaks the whole – it is all woven together. If you know where Your Life comes from – from God, through your parents – you will know what life really is, you will not murder. If you know the utter faithfulness of God in this Flow of Life you will not live faithlessly, breaking faith, Committing Adultery – which usually leads to the Death of a relationship. You will not steal for you know the Life that is coming to you from God who provides Life and all good things freely, you will not speak anything but the absolute truth about others for they are beneficiaries of that same life and you will not covet, for when you See God, you Know you have all you need. ‘Seek is Kingdom and his righteousness – Look Always to Him – and all these things will be added to you’
But . . . the wrong authority has ben installed in the Temple . . . Covet?? Get a credit Card (malignly named – for in Truth it is a Debt Card) – and you can have it all – – – Satan’s last temptation is the one he holds before us in this Age – you can have it all . . . (only Worship me . . .) It is I think nothing short of Demonic our current Economic system . . . you can have it all – and if we don’t get it then like Cain we get resentful and the next moment we are talking about ‘those people’ who are in our way with words of hate and bitterness . . . Guard you heart says the Teacher! Is there bitterness within you?? Get rid of it, for it is a root which bears terrible fruit. If you take your Life at all seriously – Root out bitterness and Resentment – for they come from the pit of Hell . . . and then we take what is not by right ours – sometimes in the name of God – and well . . . in a world turned upside down
And the problem finally is rooted in the human heart. The Temple as the Heart of a Culture, The Temple as Creation, The Temple as the Human heart . . . made for the Throne of God, of Goodness, Peace and beauty – The Human Heart if we know ours at all is a battlefield . . .
The Russian Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn had seen first hand how grand human schemes to ‘put the world right’ by fixing other people only led to Hell. He had ended up in a Soviet Gulag. But he used his time well . . . rather than falling into bitterness and anger at those around him, he undertook a fearless inventory of his heart and indeed it requires great courage. He went forensically over his life and saw how the evil in his own heart had been part of the reason for the evil of the Revolution, how he had contributed to it – He saw how his life was woven into the lives of all those around him. He finally saw that the only hope for the Salvation of the World was not in ideologies of equity and liberty – but in the transformation of the Human heart, for in truth the line between Good and Evil which we see ‘out there’ in truth runs through the heart of every person
As I come to a close I recount some words I saw just yesterday in Father Stephen Freeman’s blog – “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.” – we need to know the truth of this, hard though it is – he goes on “When the battlefield within the heart is ignored and projected outwards, the result is a world of black and white, good and bad, friend and enemy. But both friend and enemy have hearts that are themselves a mass of contradictions, a battleground of good and evil.” and then quoting Solzhenitsyn
“ If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The Ten Words bespeak the Fundamental reality of our existence – when the reality of our Heart – the ground of that existence is not carefully watched over and ignored, when instead it is projected onto the World \out there’ things fall apart, starting with our lives and then the lives of all those around us, for you cannot disconnect them – when Religion goes bad – culture fall apart, and there is only every one end to it
And so to the Cleansing . . .
From the earliest human stories we have known this. The labours of Hercules – he is told to clean the stables of King Augeas in a single day – and King Augeas had thousands and thousands of cattle and sheep and goats and every night they were put back in the stable . . . and what did Hercules do? How did he do it? He diverted rivers so they flowed through the stables . . . When God saw that every inclination of man’s heart was evil – he found one whose heart was good, Noah – Commanded his to be prepared for what was coming, to build and ark, and the LORD sent a flood . . . So Jesus comes to cleanse the Temple – he drives out the animals – he overturns all the money and the money changers – he Overturns their tables . . . later in secret he comes again to the Temple courts and stands up in the midst and declares ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’
Jesus comes to perform the deepest cleansing – Saving the World through the Transformation of the human heart. Cleansing The Temple which is Created to be the dwelling place of God in the World. We come to him, to allow our hearts to be changed, transformed illuminated – that they are no longer the dwelling place, the haunts of demons, of bitterness and resentment and all the rest which comes from Hell, but become full of Light and Life.
Our Work in Lent is to open ourselves to His Searing illumination – allowing His Light to Flood our Hearts that our Lives may be overturned and that through renewed Lives the World might be saved.
We might ask this week, what is the outflow of our hearts? What are our thoughts? Are they light or dark? Pay attention to your heart. Is there Hate lurking there for ‘those people’ – we live now in an Age where people are increasingly and dangerously polarised, and hate is rampant. The internet gives us ‘safe places’ where we only meet those who are like us and do not challenge us, we are easily blinded to our hearts, thinking The Problem is Out There. This way is Death.
But there is another way – a way that looks to the unseeing gaze as death – Christ and him Crucified, Foolishness to the Wisdom of the World, and Offence to those who think they can put themselves right before God – Follow me, says Jesus, in the Way of dying to yourself, of crucifying those parts of your heart from which darkness and hate flow out into the world – Come to me that you may drink from Streams of LIVING water. Life not Death – and you will now Life From Death
The cleansing of the Temple is the cleansing of our heart – Life not Death – Do thes things and you will live – do this and you will know Life From Death – Blessed Lent. Blessed Easter
On Ash Wednesday we were delighted to welcome about ten university students from the TSCF new community flats. They had come as a shared discipline to worship together as Lent started. For several, Lent was not something they had encountered before, except as a season to give up chocolate! What is more the practise of Ashing, of remembering their mortality and thus in the seriousness of Life to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel of Christ was also new.
But they were further disoriented (and to be reoriented we often have to become disoriented) for we used the old service from the 1662 prayer book with its strange language. And from time to time I offered an explanation of the text, including the word ‘Comfortable’ (as in ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that turn to him’). Words change their meanings and often if we are not careful we end up saying something opposite to what we thought we were saying.
Above you can see a part of the famous Bayeux tapestry, depicting the victory of William the Conqueror (a Viking!) over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that . . . In the scene you can see a solider wielding a large club – He is Bishop Odo, a cousin of William, and the wider inscription reads ‘Bishop Odo Comforts the troops’. “With a Club?” I hear you ask.
The word Comfort comes from the Latin Confortis – literally ‘with strength’, or strengthen, or we might say Encourage – (from the French en courage – ‘with heart’). The soldiers are being ‘con-forted’ – that is strengthened for the affray. The Bishop is not back in the field hospital ‘comforting the wounded’, he’s in the thick of it putting some steel (metaphorically) into his troops, with his club. Encouraging them, driving them forward.
This Strengthening, through struggle and testing is at the heart of Lent, for it is at the very heart of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.
We read in Mark’s Gospel ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’
The dove mentioned is not the prettified white dove of our imaginations, but a wild rock pigeon – who comes tearing through the heavens and immediately drives ‘him [Jesus] out into the wilderness’ to be tested by the Satan.
‘Well’, we might say, ‘Jesus did that so we don’t have to!’ (This escape clause is what above all turned the German Philosopher Friederich Nietzsche against Christianity – for it reduced to nothing the demands laid on us by our faith, or to put it more completely, the challenge that Existence itself, GOD places before us). But in this respect, Nietzsche was correct; ‘Comfortable’ (in the modern sense), bourgeois Christianity was and is a fake, and he saw through it.
Lent offers us the opportunity to grow up in our faith, be strengthened for all that Life throws at us, so that at the last we are not lost. For the words of Jesus are plain and True. ‘Where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after’ We too must all face what Jesus faced. When we become his disciples this becomes conscious – we become aware of the seriousness of our existence and the urgent call of Jesus.
The Church in her Comforting mercy drives us into Lent as the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness. It is a time for strengthening, for testing to see if we are really ready for what confronts us – then we follow Jesus through Holy Week to the Cross. Only those who have taken this journey will know Easter Joy.
Strengthen that which remains – it is WORTH IT as we follow the one
‘who for the joy set before him endured the Cross’