Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How silently...

Word came of a royal pregnancy, and the world was on fire with the news. St James’ palace announced that the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital with severe morning sickness. They had to make the announcement earlier than they would have liked, but as soon as the news was out, there was scarcely a corner of the world which didn’t know of the royal pregnancy. The media had shouted it everywhere. It is hard to imagine news like this not spreading like wild fire.

But how silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given on the first Christmas day. I’ve sometimes wondered what Phillips Brooks meant when he wrote those words. It is of course possible that he was simply peddling the classic, sentimental picture of Christmas: The blessed mother, so virtuous that she scarcely felt any pain during child birth, but quietly delivers her child. The infant Lord, so splendiferously holy that he doesn’t cry or scream, but lies there, quietly gurgling, emitting a strange, etherial light. It’s the image of the Bethlehem stable found on thousands upon thousands of Christmas cards up and down the country, and which, we too, have represented in our own, beloved bucolic Christmas shed. If our statue of Mary is anything to go by, she has easily beaten Megan Fox, having lost her baby weight a matter of minutes after giving birth!

It is possible that Phillips Brooks meant us to think of Jesus birth that way. But I like to think that he knew better than that. Real babies don’t come without pain. Real infants don’t keep blissful silence. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”!? Pull the other one. How silently he came, but not in an otherworldly sense. Silently in that hardly anyone noticed that the greatest gift had come from heaven to human beings. Silently in that the Bethlehem advertiser wasn’t on the doorstep to report the news. Silently in that this birth was completely ordinary, just like millions of other births throughout history. There are many children whose lives get off to a worse start.

It is the ordinariness of this birth which Luke’s story captures so wonderfully. Politicians have plans to count up the inhabitants of the world, hoping to get a good idea of available wealth so that tax revenue can be maximised. A man travels to his home town, just like many other people, taking his fiance with him. He arrives to find a crowded town and makes his way, probably not to a commercial inn, but to the home of a relative to find lodging in their guest room. But the room was already filled with other relatives who had also made the journey to Bethlehem. So Joseph and Mary were were put up underneath the living quarters, where the animals might have slept, and the baby was found a feeding trough to sleep in. There isn’t anything too unusual about this scene, certainly nothing to betray the significance of the events.

When the infant Lord of all creation receives visitors, unlike Matthew, who has Jesus visited by members of a royal court, Luke’s visitors are ordinary working men, going about their ordinary business, perhaps gathered round a fire, playing games or music. Think of a night-watchman playing cards with his colleagues as they kept half and eye on their CCTV monitors. It was these ordinary people to whom the only royal announcement came on that beautiful, awesome night. Not to Augustus, or Quirinius, or Herrod, but to the kind of people you might meet at the pub. And it’s these ordinary people who, if we had read on a few lines, are themselves made God’s messengers: after the had seen the child,  they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2.17–18)

A second century bishop, St Irenaus once said, ‘Just as the skill of a doctor is revealed in the care of his patients, so the nature of God is revealed in the way he relates to us’. And so at Christmas God is revealed to us as the lover of the ordinary. He is born in an ordinary place, in the ordinary way, he reveals his glory to ordinary people, and he asks for our ordinary lives to proclaim the good news of his love to a waiting world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jesus was baptised... as a baby?

The year of Luke has barely started, and I'm already having a gripe at the lectionary. For those who had more than enough the last time I wen't ballistic at the lectionary compilers, please forgive this additional outburst. I was doing some forward planning with our parish administrator this morning, and something struck us as rather odd about the chronology of the readings for the next month or so. Allow me to demonstrate:

Christmas day   –   Jesus' birth (Luke 2.1-20)
1st Sunday of Christmas   –   The twelve year old Jesus is found in the temple (Luke 2.41-52)
Epiphany   –   The infant Messiah is revealed to the Gentiles (Matthew 2.1-12)
Baptism of Christ   –   Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan (Luke 3.15-22)
3rd Sunday of Epiphany   –   The wedding at Canna (John 2.1-1)
4th Sunday of Epiphany   –   Jesus teaches in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4.14-21)
Candlemas (if transferred to the Sunday)  –  The infant Jesus is presented in the temple (Luke 2.22-40)
Sunday before Lent   –   Jesus is transfigured (Luke 9.28-43)

That is a really strange chronology. Jesus is born, and then is found reasoning with teachers in the temple. Next Sunday he is an infant again, being adored by the Magi. The next Sunday he is being baptised (yes as a grown man). You then ge a couple of weeks of 'grown man Jesus' texts. But then Candlemas arrives and you are back at an infancy text. The next week, inexplicably, Jesus is transfigured.

I really cannot help but think that all of this shows how the church calendar consistently mangles the narrative of the gospels. I often hear laments about how people don't know the basic gospel story anymore... perhaps the reason for that can be found at our own doorstep? When Jesus is baptised before he is presented in the temple, confusion is completely understandable. I don't even want to think about how the feast of the naming and circumcision of Jesus can come after he was found in the temple as a twelve year old! 

I know that the lectionary is not supposed to be chronological, and that there are difficulties with easter changing date every year. However, if your study of the gospels comes solely, or even mainly through Sunday worship, the odds of having a pretty weird understanding of the events of Jesus' life are huge.

Monday, December 17, 2012

God Sings in Advent – Zephaniah 3.14–20

I think it is fair to say that we live in a world which people afraid a lot of the time. The shocking news on Friday of the murder of twenty primary school children and six teachers in Connecticut in the USA, reminded everyone of how dangerous the world can be and how fragile human life is. That the hands of one man could end so many lives, barely begun, certainly fills me with fear. Fear of what human beings are capable of. Fear of what the response to all this might be, with people calling for teachers to be armed to defend their pupils.

Sometimes our view of God reinforces our general state of fearfulness. Advent is a time when we dwell long and hard on the coming judgement, when God will make all things right and just and true. But the world we live in isn’t just and true and good. I am not just and true and good much of the time. If God is coming as judge, what will happen to me?

It’s in the middle of this season where we are asked to think about the coming judgement, that we read a remarkable passage from the prophet Zephaniah. This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in year C, is the only chance we get to read the words of this Old Testament prophet on Sunday mornings. Zephaniah lived in the seventh century BC. Moral, religious and social corruption had chipped away at the life of the southern kingdom of Judah for almost fifty years under the reign of two terrible kings, Manasseh and Amon. Judah had become a wicked society, full of idolatry and the abuse of the poor. Zephaniah’s prophecy doesn’t take long to read through. It is only three chapters long, and it is full of God’s judgement, of fear and impending doom. 

But right at the end of the book is this joyful prophecy. Zephaniah tells us of the day of the Lord: a day of singing, a day when God’s judgement on his people has come to an end. Where Israel is no longer paralysed with fear. A time when arms that hung limp with terror can be raised up in praise to God. A time where God’s love will cause the people to rejoice and grow in strength, because God has come to live with his people.

Zephaniah is very carefully spelling out the hope of Advent. It is the hope that, however horrendous the world sometimes seems, judgement is never the last word. That God will come to save us and that we should not be afraid.

We live in a world of fear: ecological, environmental, political and economic fear. The media thrives on terrifying us on a daily basis. Depending on what news paper you read, you might have heard that the world will be coming to an end this Friday, according to an ancient Mayan calendar. Unless, of course, you live in the small french village of Bugarach, whose residents will be rescued by aliens. It is all quite ridiculous, but silly stories like the Mayan calendar apocalypse give voice to the deep, underlying fear which we all experience. 

So the question I want to ask is this: in a world permeated by fear, what would it look like if the church placed less emphasis on the fearful, terrifying God of judgement, and more on the God who rejoices and sings over us (Zeph 3.17). In the Hebrew scriptures the word most commonly used for God’s love is hesed, it means an unfailing, steadfast love and fidelity. It is as much a matter of the will as of the heart. It is a beautiful word which reminds us that God’s love for us is not dependent on how lovely we are. But in Zephaniah’s song, a different word for love is used. Zephaniah uses the word ahaba, a passionate love which delights in the beloved with songs of adoration. It is a beautiful word, because it reminds us that however bad we feel, however much we feel morally ugly, God finds us beautiful, and a delight to behold.

Perhaps the calling of the church in our day is to not be overcome by fear, but to rejoice, because God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ. It’s right to observe Advent properly, to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming, and to try not to arrive at the manger too early. Advent is, after all, a time of waiting. But we’re not waiting to find out whether God loves us or not. We wait for our lover to return home. We wait for Jesus’ return with confidence and hope, rather than panic and fear. When God came among us in human form, when he united heaven and earth in his own person, he was singing a song of delight in his creation.

As we move further through December, the world is getting physically darker and darker. As it gets darker, we string up lights on trees and in the high street. In a way we try to battle against the darkness; to proclaim that light has come into the world and the darkness has not and never will overcome it. We are full of joy and excitement about Christmas. But I think when you scratch the surface, Christmas cheer soon disappears. We often feel a lot of Christmas anxiety: Are the family going to get on at the big get together? Will they like the gift I bought for them? Where on earth am I going to find the time to do everything that needs to be done? How am I going to pay off that credit card bill in January?

Advent is a time when we don’t have to burry those fears we have. It is a time to be honest about the things that trouble us. But as we feel the darkness around us, it is also a time to  listen to and rejoice in God’s song: ‘Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.’ (Zeph 3.16–17)

Brother Martin on Zephaniah 3.14 & 15

"The Lord has taken away the judgement against you." That is, "He does not want you to rebuke yourselves anymore. He does not want you to hate yourselves anymore. Rather, he loves you like a beloved daughter. You have a God who is a very gentle Father, and no longer a judge who wants to terrify your conscience with the law."
(Martin Luther,  Lectures on the Minor Prophets)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Being a Pastor – Gregory the Great

“Our Lord said to his disciples, ‘See, I am sending you out like a lamb among wolves.’ There are many people, when put in positions of authority, who became hard and severe. Relishing the chance to tear their subordinates to pieces., and using their power to terrify and hurt those whom they are called to serve. There is no love in their hearts because they always need to be in control: they forget that they are called to nurture their people as a parent. They exchange humility for pride in the positions they occupy, and though outwardly they may sometimes appear indulgent, inwardly, they are full of anger. It is of them that in another place in the Gospels our Lord says: ‘They have come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.’

My friends, we should remember that we are sent as lambs among wolves, and must therefore guard our innocence lest malice overtake us. Those who undertake any pastoral office should never be the cause of evil, and should actually be prepared to have to endure it. By gentleness they must soften the anger of the violent: wounded ourselves by ill treatment, we can bring healing to other sinners. If on a particular occasion a zeal for justice requires a display of severity, then let severity have its source in Love and not in brutality. In this way, authority is demonstrated outwardly, and inwardly we experience a true paternal love for those in our care. This is what our blessed Master was teaching us when he himself demonstrated that his was no selfish love, being unconcerned with worldly honour or ambition.

Our Lord Continues: ‘Take neither purse, nor bag for the journey, nor sandles, and greet no one along the way.’ We should have such confidence in God that though we have no material security, we will never lack the necessities of life. Such confidence obviates the necessity of spending time in the pursuit of temporal goods when we should be securing eternal goods for others. We have no leisure for idle conversation in our calling; rather we hurry along the path of preaching.”

(Homilies on the Gospels, Number 17  'On the Pastoral Office',  Sections 4 and 5)

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The coming of the Son of Man — Luke 21.25–36

As I speak there are 22 days 13 hours and about forty minutes until Christmas. If you haven’t done it already, you have less than a month to get all your gifts, you have slightly over two weeks to get your Christmas Cards together if you want to send them second class, and Christmas Pudding… well, you can forget about making one now! Last week was Stir Up Sunday, the point of no return for Christmas Pudding makers! The countdown has started and the next few weeks are sure to be some of the most frenetic of the year. And whilst it can be hard waiting for christmas, particularly if you’re a kid, I am sure that we are all glad that we have just a little bit more time before it arrives.

To be honest, it is quite good that Christmas is predictable. Every year, the same date. How can you possibly prepare for a big celebration if you lack even the most basic details, like when it’s supposed to be! Imagine how you would feel if you knew that all your friends and family we going to turn up at your house, and you had to prepare yourself and your home to entertain them all, but, nobody was prepared to tell you when they might descend upon you. All you know is that it’s going to happen.

Advent feels a lot like that. Everything we say and do in worship points us to the future. Not to the baby in the manger but to the return of the king. Just listen during the Eucharistic prayer, “Confident that your promise will be fulfilled, we now watch for the day when Christ our Lord will come again in glory.” We are supposed to be preparing for something, the event to which Christ’s coming at Christmas directs us, for his second coming. But the details of this advent, when it will be and what it will look like, slip through our hands like sand.

The gospel reading for today is tantalising. On the face of it, it appears to offer ‘signs’ which will help us, or some future generation, work out when Jesus will return. And just like observing a budding tree tells us that summer is a coming in, so observing these signs tells us of God’s coming kingdom. In the USA there is almost an industry which specialises in speculating about the signs of the end of time. But when you read this passage more closely, there are some big problems with reading this as Jesus’ roadmap for the apocalypse.

The main hint that there might be more to this reading than appears at first comes when Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (Luke 21.32) Now that is a very tricky verse. If Jesus is talking about his second coming, then it looks like he might have made a mistake. The first generation of Christians lived and died, and Jesus didn’t return. Subsequent generations have come and gone, and Jesus hasn’t returned.  And there have been lots of wars and natural disasters since the first century. There have been plenty of ‘signs’ of the king’s return, but still, we’ve been waiting rather a long time. So did Jesus make a mistake? Has Jesus made a massive theological blooper? Well, I don’t think he did. And before you commit to thinking that I have gone out of my mind, let me explain why.

It all hinges on the word ‘generation’. When I hear ‘generation’, I usually think of a group of people born roughly at the same time, like ‘Generation X’. Either that or it sometimes means a period of about 30 years, so you might talk about a famous scientist and say ‘She was the kind of mind that comes once in a generation’. But the writer of Luke’s gospel uses ‘generation’ in another sense. We often hear Jesus talking about ‘this generation’, and he doesn’t have kind things to say about it. There was a crowd who were constantly badgering Jesus to perform miracles, treating him like a circus magician, and Jesus says to them, “you faithless and perverse generation” (Luke 9.41). A bit later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about an unjust steward who cheats his master to build up his pension pot. Breathtakingly, Jesus commends the steward saying, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16.8). For Jesus, ‘generation’ is often used to refer to the attitude of opposing God’s rule, people who are keen to have Jesus perform magic tricks, but who do not want to take up their cross and follow him.

I think that it’s quite possible that Jesus is using ‘generation’ in this way in our gospel reading. So rather than making a prediction about the world ending within thirty years, Jesus might be saying something like this: “Don’t be fooled, God’s kingdom won’t come easily. God’s purposes will be opposed, his love will be rejected. Don’t expect a golden age. The generation which opposes God will be around right to the very end, but even so, God hasn’t deserted the world, his rule is very close.”

Gloomy message, hey? Where is the Christmas cheer? But in our desire to be constantly cheery, might we be missing something really important? When God was born as a human being on the first Christmas day, a radical chain of events was set in motion which will lead to God’s final triumph over all the forces of evil. All injustice, all cruelty, all selfishness and violence will one day dissolve away as God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness. God’s becoming a human being and living  with us, and dying and being raised for us and ascending to heaven has consequences for humanity. 

Those times when we tolerate injustice, when we are happy to see one group of human beings trampled under the feet of others, when we use violence or cruelty to get our way. Those types of behavior which we all from time to time engage in are shone on by the floodlights of God’s kingdom. And we’re beckoned to, to live the life of the future in the present. Jesus calls us in a sense, not to look for signs of his coming, but to be signs of his coming. Whilst we are trying to get the last of the Christmas shopping in, and making sure we don’t miss the nativity play, and trying desperately not to get fed up with it all, Advent points to the future and asks us to think about the end of time, and how we should live in the light of God’s coming kingdom.

Jesus’ message to us is that, if we genuinely seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, to be a sign of his good, just and peaceful reign over all things, life may very well be difficult. The old world does not easily give way to the new. The fact is that life isn’t always like a Christmas party. Faith doesn’t always, or even often, lead us to the crib, with the infant Lord quietly cooing.Very often, faith leads to conflict and trouble. When everything seems to be going wrong, should we freak out and panic? Should we pour ourselves another drink, and try to ignore it (Luke 21.24)? When things seem difficult, God and his rule are very close. At that time, Jesus says, ‘stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christ the King: John 18.33–37

I want us to start with a game. Who remembers Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It was a quiz show from the late 90s. At the start of each game you had to put a list of things in chronological order, or something like that. So I want us to do that this morning with Christian Festivals! Here are the four festivals which I want you to put in chronological order with the oldest first: Corpus Christi, Easter, Christ the King, Christmas/Epiphany…

Those of you who put Easter as the oldest festival are correct. We first hear about it in the second century, it was probably a combined celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s the only Christian festival which can have any claim to go right the way back to the time of the apostles.

Did anyone have Christmas and Epiphany next? They probably have their origins a bit later. Whilst Christians had always celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christmas itself became popular around the fourth century as an attempt to offer a christian alternative to winter solstice festivities, particularly the celebration Natalis Solis Invict, the birthday of the Invincible Sun on December 25. The first recorded celebration of Christmas was in the year 336 in Rome. Epiphany is probably a bit older, possibly going back as far as the end of the Second Century.

Then there is Corpus Christi, the feast giving thanks for the sacrament of Holy Communion, now that’s an interesting festival. You have to wait until the mid thirteenth century for that. An Augustinian nun, Juliana of Li├Ęge, had a vision which lead her to campaign for the institution of the feast. In 1264, pope Urban IV made Corpus Christi a feast.

What about Christ the King? Now, you would have thought that Christians had been honouring of Jesus the king for a long time. I mean, the gospels are all about Jesus the Messiah, the king, aren’t they? But despite it seeming quite natural to have a feast like this ‘Christ the King’ is a relative latecomer as far as the church calendar goes. It was in 1925 that Pope Pius IX instituted it. It took 1925 years for the church to need the feast of Christ the King as she needs it today. On the first celebration of Christ the King, Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years and an upstart called Adolf Hitler had been out of jail for almost a year after his failed attempt at leading a revolution in Munich in 1923, what we sometimes call the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. Radical right wing philosophy was growing in popularity throughout Europe. And whilst all this was happening, the world was languishing in one of the deepest economic depressions of history. Despite the dire circumstances, despite the growth of fascism and the posturing or world powers, christians decided to re-focus on Jesus Christ, that he is the true king of the universe, despite everything pointing to the contrary.

We find that tension, between the way things appear and what is really going on in our gospel Reading. We find a beaten Jew on trial before a Roman governor who thinks he is the most powerful man in town. Later on in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, pilate says to Jesus, ‘don’t you realise that I have the power to free you or crucify you?’ (19.10). But despite Pilate’s inflated sense of self importance, he appears in our reading as a rather pathetic character. We begin to see John’s critique of human power and authority.

In this reading John shows us that Power is Precarious: If you were to read back a few verses, you would find Pilate constantly hopping backwards and forwards between his palace and a the Jewish leaders who have stayed outside to avoid defiling themselves before the passover. Pilate, desperate to avoid a rebellion in his province of the Roman Empire, is caught between the truth as he sees it, that there is no basis for a charge against Jesus (18.38) and what the Jewish leaders want. Not that Pilate isn’t suspicious of Jesus. His question ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’, is almost certainly a way of asking Jesus whether he poses a threat to the Roman state. Jesus’ response is particularly pointed, ‘is that your own idea’, he says, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ To put it another way, ‘Is it you that has a problem with me, or have you been put up to this?’ Jesus is pointing out that the all powerful Pilate is being manipulated by the people he governs. Power and authority are very attractive, but are also very precarious. It is utterly impossible to exercise power by yourself, there is no such thing as a good leader without good followers. Pontius Pilate is a slave to the people he governs.

In twenty first century Britain we have, generally speaking, learnt that power can’t be held by a small group who have absolute authority. But sometimes we are tempted to have the kind of ‘strong’ leadership which commands our obedience. This temptation is present in the church too. I personally, was greatly disappointed with the way the Synod vote on the ordination of women bishops turned out on Tuesday, but I have to constantly remind myself that the way for the church to finally find its way to fully honouring the vocations of women is not through political manipulation, it is not through occupying the precarious ground held by dictators. We won’t find the unity of purpose we all desire by getting judges or politicians to enforce our will on others. We have to make the decision not to behave like this whatever our beliefs about women bishops are. The moment we start trying to use politics to enforce our will on others is the moment we cease to resemble Jesus Christ.

Jesus is a king alright, but nothing like any king you will ever find on earth. His Kingdom is not from this earth, building its foundation on coercion and manipulation. But it is a kingdom for this world. A kingdom which, when it comes, transforms and beautifies the world. His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asks; What is really real? For Pilate, respect, honour and political power were real. For the Jewish leaders religious cleanliness, ritual and fidelity to an ancient tradition were real. Perhaps the Church of England needs to ask itself this question today. What is really real for us? Intriguingly, John doesn’t give us an answer to Pilate’s question, he doesn’t tell us what truth is. Instead he presents us with a person, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. His kingdom of truth isn’t manifested through violence and coercion. The symbols of this reign are a towel and a bowl of water to wash dirty feet. They are a cross and a crown of thorns with which he suffered for us. The extent to which we are part of Jesus’ kingdom of truth will be show by the way we seek to use power. For our good, or for the good of others?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why a bad theology of the eucharist cannot excuse sexism

As I write this, there is a timer on a new website, Yes2Women Bishops (by the way, great campaign, you should all sign up), telling me that there are seven days, twelve hours and thirteen minutes until the General Synod of the Church of England votes on the legislation to allow women to be ordained as bishops.

The decision of General Synod is of particular interest to the church which I serve as curate as our congregation is somewhat divided over the issue. As a supporter of the ordination of women, I have been fascinated by some of the reasons I have heard people advance over the last couple of years, arguing for very strong protection for traditionalists.

The most intriguing of the arguments I have heard is the argument about ‘sacramental assurance’. This argument is intriguing on one level because it is only made by those who have a very specific understanding of the efficacy of sacramental grace and the instrumental causality of the priest (so not by conservative evangelicals, for instance). The argument goes like this: Jesus intended his church to have certain assured channels of grace, where material elements combined with physical and verbal rituals combine to being about a spiritual effect. These channels are called sacraments, and the only way for us to be sure that they channel the grace they promise is by ensuring that the sacraments themselves remain precisely the way which Jesus intended them to be. So a eucharist which uses Fanta and M&Ms cannot be a sure channel of grace because Fanta and M&Ms weren’t mandated by Jesus. 

So far this looks reasonably normal, albeit with the rider that most people don’t think of sacraments this way. But it becomes more complicated when it comes to the ministers of the sacrament of the eucharist. In the Anglican tradition, the proper minister of this sacrament is an episcopally ordained priest. There isn’t the space here to enter into the rights and wrongs of the idea of ‘apostolic succession’ (Personally, I cannot resist thinking about this as the 'contagious disease' understanding of ordination. It is like catching a cold, one carrier passing the virus onto the next. It all seems, rather problematically to paint the Holy Spirit out of the picture), suffice to say that this is part of the CofE’s understanding of ordination. So you get grace from the sacraments so long as certain conditions are met including the unbroken chain of episcopal ordination. Now here comes the traditionalist sucker punch: women were (supposedly) never ordained. So by ordaining them, the conditions which guarantee grace through the eucharist are being tinkered with. No male only priesthood, no guarantee of grace. 

If you want a fuller statement of the argument from someone who clearly finds it more convincing than I do, why not read this letter by Simon Killwick written to the Church Times, if you aren’t a Church Times  subscriber, you can find it reproduced here.

Traditional anglo-catholics clearly regard this as a knock-out argument. It is so deep within the corporate psychology of such groups that, to argue against ‘sacramental assurance’ is to argue against the whole corporate spirituality of anglo-catholicism. Not being one to shy away from controversy, here is my attempt:

My basic concern is with the language of ‘sureness’ in connection with sacraments. There is a strange tendency within traditional anglo-catholicism to exaggerate sacramental causality to the exclusion of any real involvement of faith. The language of ‘sacramental assurance’ depends on this understanding: It is not good enough that God’s grace is given to us through sacraments, we have to be absolutely sure that we are receiving God’s grace through the sacraments or else some dire fate might await us. This sureness comes through the performance of a certain ritual by a certain class of people who are connected in an unbroken chain to the apostles and ultimately to Jesus.

My difficultly with this is that faith as the means of receiving God’s grace is utterly diminished. Ultimately, sacraments aren’t the stuff of sureness. They are the stuff of faith. If you want to be sure, beyond any shadow of doubt that you are receiving Jesus, for goodness sake, don’t come to the eucharist! How can anyone be sure that they receive the gracious presence of Jesus in the eucharist? We can’t. The eucharist doesn’t appear to us as a supernatural thing. To our senses, bread and wine remains bread and wine, however much bling you dress it up in. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas, whose ‘catholic’ credentials cannot be doubted, wrote these words:
“Praestet fides supplementum / Sensuum defectui” 
“Let faith provide a supplement / for the failure of the senses”
If anyone suspects that poetic expression is obscuring clarity in this instance, Aquinas’ discussion on the receiving of the sacrament in the Summa Theologiae (III.80) is even more enlightening. The first article asks whether there are two ways of eating Christ’s body, ‘sacramentally’ and ‘spiritually’. Aquinas almost certainly has in mind his earlier article (III.73.6.sc) and his use of the established distinction between sacramentum tantum (the sign alone) and res et sacramentum (the reality and the sign). Here, as when Aquinas uses the same distinctions in relation to baptism (III.66.1), the sign and the reality signified exist semi independently. In III.80.1 the ‘sacramental’ eating is clearly the eating of the sacramentum tantum. Aquinas maintains that it is entirely possible to receive the eucharist in a physical way alone (i.e. just consuming the outward sign, the bread and wine). The spiritual eating, or effect of the sacrament, is to be joined with Christ ‘through faith and charity’. To sum up this strange bit of mediaeval theology, Aquinas says that the spiritual effect of the eucharist does not come automatically, merely by eating. Sacramental grace has to be received by faith.

So I think there is some value in stating that sacraments are not the stuff of ‘sureness’ but the stuff of ‘faith’. Anyone who comes to the eucharist in the hope of receiving Christ’s life comes with faith; faith that God is operating through these material things. If someone thinks that God is unable to operate if a woman is presiding at the supper, they lack faith that God can work through a woman. I would say that this is both a very deep lack of faith in God's grace (we only ever receive Christ in the eucharist because God is a God of grace), and betrays a deep seated sexism. Believing in the legitimacy of the ordination of women is not about rights, it is about faith. You cannot avoid being a sexist by adopting a bad theology of the eucharist.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Windows

                                            Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
                                                              He is a brittle crazie glasse:
                                            Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
                                                              This glorious and transcendent place,
                                                              To be a window, though thy grace.

                                            But when thou anneal in glasse thy storie,
                                                              Making thy life to shine within
                                            The holy Preachers; then the light and glorie
                                                              More rev'rend grows, and more doth win:
                                                              Which else shows watrish, bleak, & thin.

                                            Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
                                                              When they combine and mingle, bring
                                            A strong regard and aw: but speech alone
                                                               Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
                                                               And in the eare, not conscience ring.

George Herbert, The Temple

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What do we want Jesus to do for us?


A few years ago I spent a little while living in Rome. One of the things get used to quite quickly in a big Italian city like Rome is the large number of Beggars. They are often run by gangs who exploit, and sometimes even cause their multiple disabilities to make money. If you get up early enough in the morning you can see the gang bosses dropping the beggars off on street corners for a long, cold, lonely day of begging. Most people give them a fairly wide birth, a few kind, or perhaps naive people, throw them a few coins, hoping that it will make their situation better, but half suspecting that ultimately, this will just go to the people who are running them. Their muffled pleas for money and hunched posture tell of a lives which lack wealth, friendship, dignity. This is the kind of person which Jesus meets on at the gate of Jericho as he travels to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus, the kind of person people cross the road to avoid. 

And yet Mark portrays Bartimaeus as the ideal follower of Jesus, the ideal disciple. But hold on. Isn’t this just a story about a wonderful miracle? Aren’t we reading too much into this lovely, though ultimately inconsequential tale, if we say it’s all about what makes a good follower of Jesus? I don’t think we are reading too much into it, mainly because Mark, like a skilled writer, gives us clues which refer back to earlier parts of his story about Jesus. I want to rewind back to two stories Mark tells of failed discipleship and to think about he contrasts them with this poor, blind beggar:

1) A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich young man, who came to Jesus asking how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus advised him to keep God’s commandments. The rich man man, who also turns out to be extremely devout replies that he has kept all God’s commandments from his youth. Surely, this man was an outstanding candidate to inherit eternal life if ever there was one. But Jesus looking at him with love in his heart, said that he lacked one thing. To be truly righteous he had to go, sell everything he owned, give it to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the man walked away sad. The only person we read of in the gospels who meets Jesus, receives his call and goes away sad, because he couldn’t leave his possessions behind.

But here we find Bartimeaus. A man with nothing of any value: landless, disabled, but with a belief that Jesus, the son of David could help him. A belief he will not let go of, even when people tell him to shut up and stop bothering Jesus. Then finally, Jesus call on his life comes. What does Bartimaeus do? Gather up his scraps of belongings and drag them with him to meet Jesus? No. Bartimaeus, ‘throwing off his cloak… sprang up and came to Jesus’. Now that might seem foolish. This was probably the one outer garment he had, the only thing to fight of the cold. It could also have been the object he spread on the ground to collect the coins the charitable rich threw to him. And as a blind man, once he had cast it off he might easily have lost it for ever. But Bartimaeus wanted to meet Jesus, and believing that Jesus could answer his request probably felt that he would soon have no need for a beggars cloak. He cast aside even the little he had to follow Jesus. This is the path of a true disciple.

2) The second story of failed discipleship I think Mark wants us to think of comes just after the story of the rich young man. Two of Jesus followers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee came up to Jesus and said “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Quite a request to make to the son of God! But Jesus humours them, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks, the exact same questions he asks Bartimaeus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus followers reply ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ They want power and influence because of their relationship with Jesus, and by that request show that they still fail to see what Jesus is really about. “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said, “My teacher, let me see again.” And asking for his physical sight, Bartimaeus receives that and much more, he receives the spiritual sight which the disciples lack. Jesus dismisses him but he will not listen, having cast aside all his possessions, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” For Mark, ‘on the way’ always means, ‘on the way to the cross’. He sees what the other disciples cannot

Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the model disciple, our teacher on the difficult, joyful journey of following Jesus. He shows us what a follower of Jesus looks like: A person of humility, persistence, courage and willingness to take risks. A person who is waiting to follow Jesus wherever he goes, and is willing to throw down anything which would keep him from following.

And so Jesus’ question is one that we need to ask ourselves too. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Why are we here to meet with Jesus? What do we want from this? To take time to work out what we really want as individuals and as a church is incredibly important. Will our answer betray similar motives to the disciples, or the rich young man? Or will we learn from Bartimaeus, and be people who want to see, to see Jesus, to see his vision of God’s kingdom, and cast aside anything which will keep us from seeking it.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Archbishop of Canterbury? Who Cares?

I know that the decision about the Archbishop of Canterbury is the closest the Church of England ever gets to having news which is genuinely newsworthy, but am I the only person who is beginning to get fed up with the endless media coverage and ridiculous speculation? I'm beginning to wonder how important I think the Archbishop of Canterbury really is. I'm even getting annoyed that people are referring to him as the ABC. Frankly, the thought that the process might actually drag on for months is more that I can bear.

But it's not just the irritating media coverage. I find the candidates bland generally. It looks as though the choice is ultimately between an inexperienced conservative from Durham (you might as well elect a really, really good vicar) and a cringeworthy self publicist from Norwich (N.B. Graham James: Nobody believes that you've prayed not to be the next archbishop – his announcement reminded me of the archdeacon from Rev. when he was being considered for promo... I mean a new servant ministry. Nolo Episcopari? If you don't want the job, take your name off the list).

There is something rather unpleasant about the whole business. I think Giles Fraser (here and here) is spot on in suggesting that the secretive nature of the decision makes it look like an establishment stitch-up. Why should this be something done behind closed doors? Why do we assume that a tiny group can discern the best way forward better than the church itself?

Some might dismiss Giles Fraser's concerns as of no interest to anyone outside fairly rarefied church circles, and I'm sure to an extent they would be right. Our church, its structures, its worship and its teaching are becoming so irrelevant to life in twenty-first century Britain that I wouldn't blame anyone for ignoring us completely. Nevertheless I do wonder how non-religious people feel when they see the way we go berserk over church leaders and leadership contests? I wonder what they think when they hear a 'front runner' for the leadership of the Anglican communion saying that it is a job with, "lots of expectation but relatively little power". Perhaps they are not surprised that religious leaders are power hungry, or that church hierarchies tend to resemble groups of desperate people, clambering the wrong way up an escalator. But I am equally sure that, however residual popular knowledge of Christianity might be, most people realise that this is not the kind of behaviour which Jesus promoted.

At holy communion this morning, we read these words from Luke's gospel:
"An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’"
(Luke 9.46–48) 
Perhaps if bishops, priests (including me) and deacons took this seriously, the church would start looking like an organisation that could do real good, that could address much of the imbalance and injustice that we see in the world. Until then, I think we'll continue to look like the establishment that most people increasingly distrust and resent.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mark 9.30–37 — True Greatness

Some of you know that we have been advertising for a Children and Families worker. I’ve never had so many discussions about job descriptions and person specifications as I’ve had in the last few months. To be honest, putting these documents together isn’t the most riveting work imaginable, but after your third or fourth hour of discussing a single paragraph of text, you begin to realise that there is an acceptable recruitment jargon… and you also realise what the jargon really means: ‘We have a casual working environment – We don't pay enough to expect you to wear a suit and tie’; ‘Duties will vary – Anyone in the office can boss you around’; ‘We are looking for a resourceful, independent self-starter – Since we have absolutely no time or resources to train you, we expect you to work everything out for yourself… quickly.’ Clearly some job descriptions are nonsense. Now I’d like you to think for a moment about what your job description for the Messiah would be? A king? A prophet? A healer? Whatever we think about the Messiah, I think that in our minds eye, we tend to have images much like those depicted on our West wall: the Messiah in glory, glowing, golden, wearing a long, flowing robe, with a halo and making strange hand gestures.

Now if these images of Christ in majesty chime with you, you’re in good company, because Jesus contemporaries, including the disciples, had very similar views. The Messiah would be a glorious, victorious king. And if you were to read Mark’s gospel as it’s meant to be read, in sequence, not mixed up, interspersed with chunks of John, you would forgive the disciples, at least Peter James and John, for being a bit confused. Earlier in Mark 9 these three disciples follow Jesus up a mountain where he was transfigured. That’s what they had been waiting for. Everything they expected the Messiah to be, and more! There he was, Israel’s true king, talking with Moses and Elijah, shining, dazzling white. A voice from heaven ‘this is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!’ If only the gainsayers could see and hear this! 

Now, as they make their way down the mountain, a Jesus says something very strange: ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again’ (v. 31). Hang on, that’s not how the story goes. The Messiah doesn’t die, a passive victim. The disciples just don’t know what to make of it. And they are silenced for the first time in our reading. Sometimes I feel sorry for the disciples in Mark’s gospel. They are always portrayed as stupid. Jesus is constantly lecturing them for not understanding even though he spoke in deliberately cryptic parables. Or criticising them for not having enough faith. Has Jesus hauled them over the coals one too many times? The disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant. Well that’s one way you could read their fearful silence. 

But as sorry as I feel for the disciples, I think there is more to this fearful silence. I think it’s a silence which comes from being all too aware of what Jesus means. They know that Jesus is the glorious king of Israel, and they are becoming increasingly aware that his kingdom isn’t going to be as they expected. The disciples didn’t ask because they knew that they weren’t going to get the answer that they wanted, that Jesus was going to be king, and that they would be his courtiers. Maybe an ambassador, or a chancellor, or even Prime Minister. 

And so they keep on arguing about who will be the greatest as they travel with Jesus to Capernaum (v. 33). When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, the disciples are silenced for the second time, now from embarrassment. And now with knowing tenderness, Jesus teaches his friends what his reign looks like, and the path they need to follow if they are to be great as their Messiah is great. He brings in a little child and says ‘this is your example’. This isn’t a cute scene of   tender lovely Jesus, embracing children and saying ‘if only we were as innocent and lovely as children, things would be great!’ A child in the first century was about the lowest of the low. In Roman society children were the property of their fathers. They could be ordered about, sold or even put to death with impunity. Life was better in Jewish culture, but Children were still generally very insignificant. In fact, the word for slave in both Greek and Aramaic, is derived from the word for child. Jesus takes a child and says, here is my Ambassador, my Chancellor, my Prime Minister. Receive this person, who society regards as nothing, and you will receive Jesus and the Father who sent him.

We generally value and care for children in twenty-first century Britain. Perhaps we need to ask who are the people who are on the margins of our society today? Who are the people who we regard as expendable? Who are those who Jesus would stand in our church, right in the middle of us, and say ‘whoever welcomes one such person in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.’  Perhaps a noisy baptismal family? or a person whose clothing seems inappropriate for church? Perhaps a prostitute or a drug addict? Who are the people in whose faces we would rather not see Jesus? Are we really a welcoming church? What might Jesus be telling us that we are unwilling to hear?

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Eternal Sabbath of the Lord

After quite a challenging August, I've had a very enjoyable week off work. As I started to think about going back my thoughts turned to the eternal sabbath of the Lord and this wonderful passage from Augustine's Confessions:

O Lord God, give us peace… the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which has no evening. For all this most good and beautiful array of things, having finished their courses, will pass away, for in them there was morning and evening. 

But the seventh day has no evening, its sun will never set, because you have blessed it to last for ever; After you made your very good works, although you made them in unbroken rest, you rested on the seventh day. Your book thus foretold that after our works (being very good, because you have given them to us), we shall rest in you also in the Sabbath of eternal life. 

For then you shall also rest in us, just as now you work in us; your rest will be through us, just as now you work through us. But you, Lord, are always working, and always at rest. You are not bound by time, neither do you move in time, nor do you rest in a time; and yet you create the things we see in time, time itself, and the rest at the end of time.

We therefore see these things which you have made, because they have being: but they are, because you see them. We see outwardly that they exist, and inwardly that they are good. But you saw them there, at the same time made and yet to be made. In our own time, we were moved to do good, when our hearts had received your Spirit; but before that we were moved to do evil, forsaking you; but you God, the One and the Good, you never cease to do good. Some of our works are good because of your grace, but they are not eternal; and after them we hope to rest in your great holiness. But you, who are the Good which needs no other good, you are ever at rest, because you yourself are your own rest.

Which human being can teach anyone to understand this? Or which Angel can teach it to an Angel? Or which Angel can help a human being to understand? We can but ask you, seek you, knock for you; That is how this knowledge can be received, how it can be found, how the door is opened. 


(Confessions, XIII, 35–38)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Can my Kit Kat make me unclean?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, so the old saying goes. The connection between physical cleanliness and spiritual health has been an obsession for religious people as long as there have been religious people. I’m open to being corrected, but I can’t think of a single religion which hasn’t developed codes of religious purity. And christians have been as big a part of this as any. How many of you dabbed yourself with water as you came into church this morning? Maybe you’ve made the sign of the cross one or two times since the service started? Or Perhaps you’ve noticed that shortly before the eucharist part of the service every Sunday, the priest has a little bit of water poured over his fingers? All of these are rituals which we use to make us holy, to make us acceptable to come and worship God.

What is the situation here?
In this reading, we are plunged into a first century Jewish debate. For a long time, the only people required to wash to make themselves pure enough to worship God were priests in preparation for sacrificing at the altar. In the book of Exodus it says “When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water” (Exodus 30.20). But the Torah, the scriptures of the people of Israel, never requires this of ordinary people. For a long time this was exactly the way things stayed; the priests carried on washing their hands and feet before going ministering at the altar, and the people would cary on, eating their dinner without necessarily washing in the confidence that this would not harm their relationship with God. But around the time that Jesus was alive, a group of very sound religious people called the Pharisees began interpreting things differently. They rightly understood that God had made all his people priests (Exodus 19.6), and that the whole of life should be lived as an act of worship to God.

What does the obsession with external ritual purity result in? 
That sounds pretty good to me! It sounds a lot like some of the stuff you read in the New Testament. Everybody a priest and the whole of life as worship sounds like just the thing to liberate christians to work for God's new society. It looks great, until you try to work out what it would look like in practice. Then it starts to look less appealing. The Pharisees extrapolated hundreds of rules from the Law about how you could maintain yourself as pure enough for God. They went way beyond the normal demands made of normal Jewish people, like not eating pork, or shellfish. And many of those laws concerned ritual washing: not just your hands, but whatever you had bought from the market, your cups and pots, the couches you would recline at to eat your dinner, the equivalent of ritually washing your dinner table and chairs. They were doing this from a desire to be pure, to take religion seriously. This kind of intensely meticulous life is ok if you are a person of privilege, who has a good education so that you can work out the complex rules you need to live by, and if you have the time and energy to devote yourself to observing all the rules. But common people didn’t stand a chance. In fact the Greek translated as ‘unclean’ in the gospel reading is better translated as ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’.

Intense and pernickety religious and ethical attitudes always result in a religious elitism of one form or another. A moral code emerges which is easy for the privileged to fulfill, but next to impossible for everyone else to get even close to. I have to admit, I think that we run the risk of this when we place a strong emphasis on only buying organic food, or fair trade products. We create a morality which costs wealthy Surrey types very little. I can afford to pay £1 for a bar of chocolate, or £4 for a pack of coffee, or £4 more per kilo for organic minced beef. But by making 'ethical consumerism' a significant characteristic of good christian behaviour, we make pariahs of the people who can’t afford shop ethically. It’s easy to have this kind of morality if you are wealthy. It’s much harder if you are struggling to pay the rent. We should be at least a little suspicious of any ethical code which is easier for the rich to keep than the poor. By all means, be a fair trade shopper, but don't look down at those who aren't.

How does Jesus respond to this? 
The Pharisees would not eat with ‘common’ hands, they felt they were better than that, and were amazed that Jesus’ disciples weren’t as concerned about maintaining a pure life as they were. Now here is the really revolutionary thing. Jesus could have responded simply by saying that the Pharisees had invented a bunch of laws which hadn’t come from God which therefore, nobody needed to obey – after all, God is the only one who can bind our consciences. But instead of doing this, Jesus goes much, much further: “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile... For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’” (Mark 7.14-15, 21). Jesus teaches that external things make us neither pure nor impure. ‘Impurity’ comes from the human heart, from from its motivations. One of the verses the lectionary compilers unhelpfully leave out is religiously explosive, it says that Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ (7.19). Jesus cleanses everything, from lobster to Kit Kats. He removes the distinction between sacred and profane, between holy and common, between pure and impure things. God created all things and he created them good. Nothing he has made can make us unworthy of worshiping him. 

The food we eat, the way we worship, the rituals we perform, the people we associate with, radio or TV channels we follow, the newspaper we read, the music we listen to: none of these makes us either pure or impure. God loves us. And we respond to that love, not by panicking about whether we are religiously acceptable to God, but by being doers of the word, as we read in the epistle of James. By loving others as he has loved us. So as we go into this week may we remember that God is interested in our lives being motivated by love, in caring from the orphan and widow, the stranger or homeless person. God is interested in our living lives of love, not in how fervently or frequently we make the sign of the cross.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Redeeming the Time – Ephesians 5.15–20

I don’t know whether you remember the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The film is takes place during the Normandy landings. Three brothers have all been killed within days of each other. One brother remains alive, private James Francis Ryan, but is declared missing in action. In a bid not to send a fourth, horrendous telegram to a grieving mother, Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and seven men are sent on a rescue mission to save Private Ryan. In their attempt to bring Ryan home, most of the men are killed, and finally Captain Miller himself, having just blown up a bridge, is mortally wounded. As he lies against a truck, covered in blood and dirt, with the chaos of war all around him, and he whispers something in Ryan’s ear, ‘James… earn this. Earn it’. 

The letter to the Ephesians is written by an elderly apostle, imprisoned for his faith, to a young church. They are, you might say, Paul’s last words to church he loved greatly. In his letter, he reminds them of the enormous privilege it is to be a Christian and he reminds them that their privileged life is the direct result of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As he closes his letter, he says, ‘In view of all this, live a different kind of life. He almost says, ‘Earn this, earn it.’

The lives we are to lead as Christians are lives which recognise both the privilege of being a child of God, and realise the price at which our adoption came, and remembering this to live lives characterised by carefulness and wisdom. Paul doesn’t hand us another set of laws detailing precisely what we should and shouldn’t do. He doesn’t want us to behave like infants, who need to have instructions from their parents for the smallest of tasks, and he doesn’t lock us into the ethical standards of his day, even though there will be some principles which are true for all time. Paul asks us to think carefully about the way we live. ‘Be careful how you live’ he says, not ‘be careful, because God is watching and if you put a foot wrong he is going to get you’. Be careful in gratitude for the great gift God has given us. We are to take our Christian life, our growth as disciples of Jesus, and our witness to the world with the utmost seriousness.

But it’s quite possible to be serious about religion in a rather unpleasant way. We can be religious bores. Go to any Church of England theological college and start a conversation on a theological topic, and you will find several people who will talk and talk and talk about it until you can take no more. You’ll wish you’d never started the conversastion. I may have even been like that myself! That’s one unpleasant way of taking religion very seriously. You could also be a serious Christian by being a person who never enjoys life: the Lord and Lady Whiteadder of Guildford, spending your time sitting on a spike for added discomfort. You might refuse all enjoyment of life and never even think of mixing with people outside the church. You couldn’t argue that this kind of person takes religion seriously! But it’s not an attractive way of life. We might be very serious about ourselves and our own religious opinions, lacking  the humility that says, ‘I am human like everyone else, and have been and can be mistaken’. Religious seriousness can lead us to claim a sort of infallibility for our ideas, and an arrogance towards those who think differently.

I don’t think Paul wants us to take the Christian life seriously in these ways. We don’t honour Jesus by becoming holier than thou know-it-alls. We don’t honour the God who created the universe by refusing to enjoy the world he has made. Neither do we ‘live in love as Christ loved us’ (Ephesians 5.2) if we despise the very people he loves. Being serious about our faith shouldn't lead us to being horrible obsessive, pedantic human beings. Rather, taking religion seriously will mean that our lives will be focussed on God, his gospel of love and forgiveness and his kingdom of justice and peace.

The God focussed life, Paul tells us, is one which makes the most of the time, or redeems the time as an older translation of the Bible put it. We are to understand how precious time is, and actively seek out every opportunity to discern God’s will and put it into practice. To show us what this kind of attitude which makes the most of the time looks like, Paul gives us an example to avoid and an example to follow.

So here we are, at the bit we all focus on. Drunkenness. We are to avoid a way of life which looks like drunkenness. Paul isn’t a first century temperance preacher, the Billy Sunday of ancient Asia Minor. He has no issue with drinking per se. In fact, I don’t think this really has much to do with alcohol, though I’m sure Paul wouldn’t have approved of Christians getting legless. In this passage, Paul is more concerned with the general character of our lives, not with specific behaviour. We all know that one way to loose focus, to loose control, to let time flit away, is to have a few too many drinks. After too much to drink, time slips by, the moments, the hours, the days merge into one. It becomes harder to act wisely, to make good judgements. If you are drunk, it is next to impossible to make a difference for good in the lives of those around us.

Instead, our lives should be ‘filled with the Spirit’,  thankful, brimming over with songs of gratitude to God for all that he has done for  us. We are to receive every day, hour and minute as a gift from God to be used for the good of the world and for his glory. The way to make the most of the time is to make our lives acts of worship to God. There’s an elderly woman that I visit. She has suffered some mental deterioration in her old age, and can’t remember very much these days, but every time I see her she always says ‘Every day I say to myself, ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, It never will surprise me what the Lord has done.’ Because he’s been so good to me.’ She has taken Paul’s advice seriously. Even now, in the evening of her life, she holds on to the goodness of God and thanks him with songs of joy. Don’t let the moments slip by, but accept them as a gift from God, opportunities for good.

‘James… earn this. Earn it’ – really and truly, Private Ryan could never earn what had been given to him. None of us deserve even one life given to save us. What he could do was live every second from then on remembering how precious his life truly was. It had been purchased at enormous cost. It was more precious than diamonds. How should we treat something that valuable? With great love and care, with thankfulness for the gift, and generosity with the riches entrusted to us.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wisdom from St Augustine

Here are some wise words from St Augustine on prayer, written to a Roman noble woman called Anicia Faltonia Proba, who was also a friend of John Chrysostom.

In order to obtainin this true blessed life, He who is Himself the True Blessed Life has taught us to pray. We do not have to pray with many words, as if our being heard depended upon the fluency with which we express ourselves, because we are praying to One who, as the Lord tells us, knows what things we have need of before we ask Him (Matthew 6.7-8). It may seem surprising that, although He has forbidden much speaking, He who knows what we need before we ask Him has exhorted us to ‘always to pray and not to faint’… giving us the example of a widow, who, desiring to have justice done against her adversary, by her persevering entreaties persuaded an unjust judge to listen to her. He was not moved because of justice or mercy, but overcome by her tiresome persistence. In this he teaches us how much more certainly the Lord God (who is merciful and just), hears our prayers to him… To teach us the same thing, Jesus also said ‘ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.’… Why this should be necessary, since God knows what we need before we ask Him, might perplex us. But we should understand that the Lord our God wants us to ask not to be informed of our wishes (for nothing can be hidden from Him), but that by our asking, desire might deepen in us, and through our desire God prepares us to receive what He wishes to bestow. His gifts are very great, but our capacity to receive them is small and meagre. That is why Scripture says, ‘open your hearts and do not share the lot of unbelievers.’ For, in proportion to the simplicity of our faith, the firmness of our hope, and the ardour of our desire, will we more fully receive that which is immensely great; which eye has not seen, for it is not colour; which the ear has not heard, for it is not sound; and which has not entered into the heart of man, for the heart of man must enter it.
Letter 130.VIII.xv, xvi, xvii

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Freely you have received

I opened my pay slip the other day, and out of the envelope fell a piece of paper informing me of the revised Church of England parochial fees. For those of you who aren't CofE clergy, parochial fees are the charges the church makes for certain special services, e.g. weddings, funerals and associated things like the reading of the banns of marriage.

I initially ignored the piece of paper (I ignore most pieces of paper which come my way), but my wife read it and pointed out some peculiarities. I decided to pay closer attention to the document, and as I did I flew into a holy rage. It felt all wrong to me. I am supposed to be a minister for all parishioners. I am housed and paid to free up my time so that I can, among other things, provide this kind of pastoral support to anyone who needs it, whether the are a member of the congregation or not, whether they can afford the fee or not!

Now I am not so naive as to imagine that there should be no charge associated with any service which the church provides. I understand, for example, that there is a legal administrative aspect to the solemnization of matrimony. Clergy have to maintain and store legal records etc. But surely, this should never be more than you would get charged by a registry office? The local registry office currently charges between £100 and £250 depending on the day of the week (it's cheeper still if you go for smaller room). The new CofE fees charge £381, adding over a hundred pounds to the most expensive option in a Surrey registry office. Don't we want to encourage people to get married in church? Why on earth does the CofE go to the trouble (and expense) of 'The Weddings Project' to encourage people to marry in church when we then go and raise the fees?! OK, the church bit is likely to be the least expensive part of a bride and groom's 'big day'. But that is not really the point. To me it looks distinctly like the church is profiteering from marriage. When people accuse the church of being obsessed with material wealth, I now have one less reason to disagree with them. The church a worshiper of filthy lucre? Guilty as charged. 

Whilst I understand that some fee is necessary for weddings, in the area of funerals, I have no praise whatsoever for the Church of England. Why on earth are we charging for funerals at all? I feel very strongly about this. Every minister that I have ever spoken to has told me of the enormous privilege of taking a funeral. It is the final dignity we can afford to a fellow human being. It is a way of accompanying surviving friends and relatives through their grief and witnessing to the gospel of Jesus, the resurrection and the life. Why, Oh why are we charging people for this? And why is the charge £160? This is shameful. Visiting a council flat to comfort a widow who has just lost her husband of sixty years and helping her prepare to say a final farewell... and then charging her £160!

Less outrageous, though equally astonishing is the proportion of the fees which goes to the Diocesan Board of Finance. Take a funeral at a crematorium with no service in church. Of the £160 fee – £29 goes to the PCC and £131 goes to the DBF. Why does such a large proportion go to the DBF? I am sure they will argue that it is used as a contribution to clergy stipends. But in my diocese, it is made quite clear that churches are supposed to cover the full cost of ministry through the parish share. If the PCC already pays the DBF for their minister's stipend and housing through their parish share, why do they pay again by giving over 80% of the fee for a funeral to the diocese? The diocese shouldn't need this money. The PCC have the strongest claim to it, and even there, I think the morality of charging people for funerals is dubious.

I have a proposal. I would love clergy to organise themselves into something like a trade union, whose members refuse to charge for funerals. The establishment can stamp down on this if there are just a few clergy who refuse payment, but if thousands of ministers refuse to charge for funerals, what is the worst that can happen? They aren't going to sack us all!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

To be or not to be... a lectionary preacher?

OK, so for a long time I've had beef with the lectionary. I've tried to express this to my friends in the past, and have never got too exercised about it (at least, I don't think I have), but the lectionary over the last couple of weeks has really got my goat.

So this is the problem. Last Sunday (22 July 2012) the lectionary gospel was Mark 6.30-34, 53-56. I have a problem with the lectionary filleting texts at the best of times, but this was a particularly egregious example. Mark 6.30-34 is the introduction to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (note, the miracle itself is rather clumsily excised from the lectionary for the day). After the feeding miracle, Jesus makes his disciples get into the boat so he can pray by himself. The next morning, Jesus walks towards the disciples who are struggling on the lake. Jesus gets into the boat, the storm stops and they pass safely to Ganessaret, which is where we pick up the reading with 6.53-56 with Jesus healing the sick. So to make the reading shorter the lectionary compilers (a) rip out the really interesting stuff (feeding miracle and walking on water) and make it a reading just about Jesus' compassion and healing people. (b) splice two lake journeys into one. Journey one (6.32) leads to the feeding of the five thousand. Journey two (6.45) leads to the walking on the water and only then to the healings at Ganessaret. It might sound like I am being pedantic, but this does real violence to the story! The upshot of all this was that I decided to preach on Ephesians 2 instead.

This week matters are made much, much worse. For those who don't know, this year of the three year lectionary cycle (year B) is 'The Year of Mark'. You would be forgiven for not knowing this because, at every available opportunity the lectionary compilers ditch Mark and go for John. Admittedly John doesn't have a year of his own (which in itself makes the basic premise of the lectionary problematic), but why on earth would the lectionary compilers choose to substitute a Johanine for a Markan text this week? The text from John which they choose is John 6.1-21, which is... the feeding of the five thousand! They pick the account of a miracle which every evangelist, including Mark, records and to add insult to injury, this is part of the material they removed from the previous week's reading from Mark! Come on! Presumably they think John tells it better. I can kind of forgive (though I don't understand or condone) the wholesale abandonment of Mark's gospel over the easter season. But the last couple of weeks take the biscuit. The lectionary really makes a dog's dinner of biblical narrative.

So that is my particular beef with the lectionary at the moment. But there are also more systemic problems:
  • The lectionary is inherently lop-sided. The format prescribes three readings. One from a collection of 39 books, another from a collection of 23 books, and a third from a collection of 4 books. It should be pretty obvious how this is naturally going to lead to a lack of balance. Is it any wonder that there are so many latter day marcionites in the church given that we give 30% of reading time to over 70% (by word count) of the bible? This is particularly glaring when the preacher has got it in their head that one should only really ever preach from the gospel reading (something I hear rather too often). I don't know where this idea came from. I'm pretty sure that it doesn't lead to a happy place.

  • Because the lectionary is lop-sided in the way described above, it has to leave out large swathes of the Old Testament, just take a look at the big master lectionary for the CofE (for this comparison I am referring to the 'Semi-Continuous' track one). Leviticus, Numbers, Judges, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Joel, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi all appear only once each in the three year lectionary cycle. 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Ecclesiasties, Daniel, Obadiah, Nahum and Zechariah don't appear at all. All in all, Isaiah does the best out of all Old Testament writings, making an appearance on 31 Sundays. Genesis is next with 20 appearances, followed by Jeremiah with 14 and Exodus with 13. Every other book appears less than ten times over the three year cycle. I just find this breathtaking. If, as I suspect, large numbers of Christians are only really reading the Bible in the context of the Sunday liturgy, they are getting a tiny fraction of the Old Testament simply because the lectionary arbitrarily allocated 30% of reading time to it. I've heard people extolling the virtues of the lectionary because it takes you through the bible in three years... it doesn't.

  • Yes, there is the gospel related 'track two' as an option for the Old Testament reading for Sundays after Pentecost, but this just plays with a solution to the problem. Of the underrepresented books, in year A, Amos, Zechariah, Jonah, Micah and Zephaniah get a single look in, the bulk of the readings are from Isaiah. In year B, Job appears twice as does Numbers, Joshua gets one reading Daniel gets his only two appearances and Amos is read another couple of times. In year C, Ecclesiastes gets another reading, as do Habakkuk and Malachi, Amos gets another two readings. The bulk of the gospel related Old Testament readings come from already well represented books. Even so, to get through the thematic and semi-continuous tracks turns the three year lectionary into a six year lectionary. The imbalance still remains. 

  • The readings are often completely unrelated. Trying to discern a common theme within the readings for a given Sunday more often than not leads to a major headache. Besides, if you do manage to hold the readings together with chewing gum and rubber bands, don't you kind of end up preaching the thoughts of the lectionary compilers? The response made by some preachers is to not preach on any of the texts, opting to preach on their favourite topic, you know, the one they have preached on a thousand times before. The response which most sane preachers make to this is to just preach one of the texts. The obvious question which this approach poses is, 'why on earth do we have the other two readings!?' If they are in no way related to each other, and consequently in no way related to the theme of the liturgy (and we should all try and discern a theme in good liturgy planning, right?) then why have them? Don't they just clutter the liturgy. Why not just have one?

My fear is that for those whose reading of scripture is almost entirely on a Sunday through the lectionary, the bible becomes at best a collection of wise vignettes, at worst a confusing jumble of incoherent stories. In fact the worst possible result of this fruit salad approach to bible reading is that scripture becomes completely irrelevant both to the liturgy and to the people of God. Don't get me wrong, In principle I love the idea of the whole church, as much as possible, reading the bible together. A common calendar is a great way to achieve this. But, seriously, is this our best attempt? Rant over.