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.