Wednesday, October 30, 2013


I'll admit my bias: I've never been a fan of the use of white poppies on Remembrance Sunday. For staters, the work of the Royal British Legion is something I am happy to support, and I would imagine anyone, even the most ardent pacifist would feel the same. The British Legion don't buy guns or tanks or bombs. They don't promote or campaign for war. They support victims of war, victims who have worn a uniform and fought, but victims none the less. They support the families of service personnel. They offer help and care for vulnerable people. That is why I am proud to buy and wear a red poppy every year.

White poppies on Remembrance Sunday on the other hand have always struck me as a rather self-righteous and somewhat cynical bourgeoisie statement of moral superiority. As far as I can work out from the website of the Peace Pledge Union who organise the distribution of white poppies, the money you spend on your statement poppy does not help the victims of war. The money you spend on your poppy is used politically. It is used to promote the pacifist agenda. "A noble cause",  you may say, and it certainly is, but I would contend that care for the welfare of actual human beings trumps any ideological commitment, however noble. So if you want to support the PPU, then wear their poppy next to a poppy appeal poppy, but don't substitute red for white, unless you care more about politics than people.

However, my dislike of the white poppy statement turned into righteous indignation this evening when I saw this on the PPU's website:

The historical naïveté of this an attack on Bomber Command is incredible. But I don't really want to get into a discussion over the ethics of aerial bombardment. What I find more incredible is that the message of peace clearly doesn't translate in the PPU's rhetoric. Physical war originates in hatred, anger and violent attitudes. Perhaps the PPU could find a more effective way of promoting peace.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ten Lepers...

Luke 17.11–19

Ten lepers, suffering from a terrible disease, outcast, untouchable. Contagious not just in terms of their disease, but religiously contaminated too, and condemned to a slow, painful, lonely death. Ten lepers, knowing their contamination approach Jesus, just close enough for him to hear their plea for help, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ What faith they all had! That in the hopelessness of their condition, new hope was found in the presence of Jesus, the Master. And so Jesus with a heart full of compassion answers them. What will he say? “Your faith has made you well”, perhaps? “Be freed from your disease!”? No… “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. Why on earth would they do that? The last thing that they would want was for someone to look on their disfigurement? To understand why they were sent to the priests you have to read a bit of the Old Testament which prescribes what to do when a person is healed from a defiling skin disease. The book of Leviticus says:

“These are the regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest: The priest is to go outside the camp and examine them. If they have been healed of their defiling skin disease the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the defiling disease, and then pronounce them clean. After that, he is to release the live bird in the open fields.” 
(Lev 14.2–7)
They were to go to the priests to be examined and for the priests to determine whether they had actually been healed, and to give thanks to God for their healing. Jesus sends them on their way to do this without having actually pronounced their healing, without any healing having actually taken place. It is only as they go that they were healed. What faith these people have! Not only do they come to Jesus and plead for mercy, they trust his capacity to heal them and act on his command without any evidence of a healing having taken place. They all went to give thanks to God for his mercy to them. These were all good people. Religious people. People of faith. And their faith healed them!

But one leper, seeing his cleansed skin, turned back. Didn’t he care about being declared clean by the religious authorities? Didn’t he want to thank God by offering sacrifice? Why this ingratitude, not conforming to the demands of the law in giving thanks for his cleansing? But one leper turned back —a Samaritan we discover, someone whose nationality as well as his disease had made him an outcast. This foreigner, this heretic, whose errant beliefs separated him from the people of God, he is the only one who truly comprehends what has just happened to him. The law hasn’t made him clean. Religion hasn’t made him clean. Jesus has made him clean. Only he understands that God is uniquely present, not in the temple, but in Jesus. In Jesus God’s kingdom has broken into the wold with healing and peace for all. And so he gallops back, praising God and falls at the feet of Jesus, giving thanks to God for his gift. It isn’t that the other nine healed lepers were ungrateful, but they didn’t see where their gratitude should be directed. They go away healed but the one who returned experienced an even deeper healing.”Get up and go on your way”, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” That phrase can be read  “your faith has saved you” – the leper hasn’t just been cleansed of his disease, he has found an inner healing and illumination by realising that Jesus is the location of divine power and healing and light.

All faith, even the most limited or misdirected faith, has the capacity to heal. It makes us more trusting, more open to that which defies explanation, more thankful. But what the gospel calls us to is an ongoing conversion, a greater, truer faith. We are called to have a faith which causes us to throw ourselves on the ground before Jesus Christ and to give thanks to him for the healing and salvation he brings. This story is much more than an exhortation to write thank you notes for presents. It is a story which seeks to turn our thanksgiving in the right direction, to Jesus Christ. Not all of us who are helped by Jesus find true faith. And sometimes the truest faith is found in the strangest places.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Filthy Lucre — Luke 16.1–13...

It’s a familiar story in the aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A manager is entrusted with vast sums of money, or packages of debt, and they wheel and deal and things go badly wrong for the people they work for. We look at the way their self interest dominated their decision making,  and we judge them, these evil bankers who loose all our money and get payed a massive bonus as a reward. It’s easy to see that these people are the bad guys. And then we read this very strange parable, and everything we thought we understood about the morality of wheeling and dealing gets shaken. How can this man, this dishonest manager, who not only squanders his master’s wealth, and then fiddles the books for his own advantage when he knows he has been caught, how can he be held out to us as an example which the disciples of Jesus should follow? Is Jesus commanding dishonesty? I don’t think so. In a number of Jesus’ parables he uses a bad person’s behaviour to teach an important lesson. Consider the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18.1–8) where a widow had to continually badger a judge before he would grant her justice. Jesus isn’t trying to teach that God is a harsh judge who never wants to help us. He uses the example of the mean judge to show us that we shouldn’t give up praying. Might Jesus be using the story about the dishonest manager to teach, not to be dishonest, but to learn from his shrewdness. Having been caught red-handed in his dishonest use of his masters possessions, he shows his cunning by making friends and influencing people with his master’s cash. He isn’t congratulated for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. And so, we are to learn from his good example, to be shrewd with whatever we’ve been given by God.

Elsewhere, Jesus tells his disciples to be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’ (Mat. 10.16). I think our problem is that we often get that the wrong way around. It is really easy when it comes to church for me to have the wisdom of a dove and the innocence of a snake. How can we learn from the shrewd world of business to help us proclaim the gospel of Jesus afresh in our generation? 
Here are some thoughts:

“Product”: If someone asks us why we go to church, or why we believe in God, or why we follow Jesus, would we be able to give an answer? What is our unique selling point? What difference can Christianity make to people's lives?

Promotion: Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about how the people we want to reach feel when they come to our church. Do they feel as though we really have good news for them? News that could change their lives? Do we welcome people, even when they don’t seem to fit with the way we like to do things? How can we avoid, at all costs, doing any kind of damage to the message we believe can change the world.

Prioritisation: With our limited resources, what are the things that we must absolutely prioritise, without which we would be untrue to our core objectives. How can we shift our attention and resources to the areas of greatest importance.

Personnel: People matter! When you look at all the resources we have as a church, you are our greatest resource. Without you we are merely a bank balance and a leaky building. With you, we are a church. So we need to care for each other and cherish each other and listen to each other. We need to make sure that no one person is overstretched and ensure that we are properly resourced and trained for the mission we have as a church. Churches that grow know that people matter more than just about anything else.

Shrewdness makes sense, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we aim to be a shrewd church, and not a naive one? But Jesus teaching is harder still. He advises that we use ‘dishonest wealth’ to get friends. Now that’s hard. Is Jesus finally nailing his colours to the mast by advocating the use ill gotten gain to win friends? Again, I think there is a deeper meaning. The phrase is literally ‘unrighteous mammon’, and in Jesus’ day it meant roughly the same as the phrase ‘filthy lucre’. It referred to money of any kind. All money is, to some extent polluted, none of it is spotlessly clean. All money has the power to draw us away from God. I suspect Jesus is saying something like this: How can you use money to gain friends? By giving it generously – After all, isn’t that one of the ways that we show ourselves to be children of the light? By giving generously, by supporting the poor and needy. That’s the point Jesus basically makes in the second half of our reading, he links maturity as a disciple to our detachment from material wealth. Strange though it may sound living in affluent, stockbroker belt Surrey, our bank balance is one of the best ways for us to test the depth of our commitment to Jesus.

Who ultimately will be our master? Shall we serve God and our needy brothers and sisters with our money, or shall we turn our money into a god who demands our utter allegiance. So that is the message of the parable of the Shrewd Manager. Always act shrewdly, learn from the world, put your resources to the best possible use, and make sure that you give your money and time and other physical resources generously, because by doing that, you show yourself to be somebody who serves God, not money, someone who is wholeheartedly committed to Jesus.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Moving on...

I can now break the strict code of secrecy which shrouds clergy appointments and announce that I am to be the next Rector of East and West Clandon in the Diocese of Guildford. They are two beautiful parishes about four miles from where we currently live. I think the diocese want us to be in place for Advent, and since developing work with the children and families of the parishes is an important priority, it seems wise to be up and running for Christmas. We'll miss St Nicolas' a great deal. St Nic's has changed so much over the last few years, and really has the opportunity to grow. So whilst it will be a shame to say goodbye, we feel as though we are moving on at the right point.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

No natural necessity...

Thomas Aquinas famously stated that in the work of creation, ‘God does not act natural necessity’ (De Potentia I.5 resp.), by which Aquinas means that God is not forced to create in one particular way, or indeed to create at all. The purpose of this line in the sand for Aquinas is to secure the fact that God is pure actuality, the God who is moved by nothing other than Godself and whose decree to create is utterly free. 

The nature of divine freedom in Thomas Aquinas’ thought is controversial theological territory. One of the principal voices in the debate is that of Eleanor Stump , who in her Excellent book Aquinas, argues that divine freedom must mean God’s ability to choose between alternatives (Stump, Aquinas p.101). 

This all sounds very sensible – what after all does free will mean but the ability to choose one thing and not another. However, Stump’s attempt to express Aquinas’ idea of divine freedom  transgresses another Thomistic maxim, that God’s free will is not exercised discursively. In his Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate 24.3 Aquinas states that, ‘Free choice is to be found in God, but it is found in Him in a different way than in angels and in men’, and that in God, ‘there is a simple view of the truth without discourse or inquiry’. So whatever divine freedom might look like, it does not look the same as my choice between holiday destinations, for instance. To what extent then, if we accept Stump’s definition of ‘free will’, can God’s choice to create the world-that-is be understood as free?

This all serves as a preamble to something I was reading this morning in Autin Farrer’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, which seemed to me to express the conundrum clearly.

“If it is even right to speak of creation as the choice of a world, it cannot be supposed that such a choice is anything like the choices with which we are familiar, I can choose a wallpaper for a room. I can flutter through the leaves of that pattern book, gradually narrowing my choice among the colours or designs which are at all suitable to my purpose, until I fix on one of them. I can do this because the shopman supplies a pattern book with some fifty papers in it. But there was, for God, no pattern book of fifty, or of fifty-thousand, possible worlds. The world he would make would be the world he would invent; and his powers of invention are inexhaustible. 
   Men also invent; artists, for example; and the process of artistic invention probably casts as much light as anything human on God’s devising of the world. But there is one aspect of God’s creative activity on which it casts no light at all; and that is, his preferring one possible creation to another. If we ask why the poet, or the composer, applied his talent to the writing of some particular work, rather than any other he might have written, the short answer will be, either that his previous history led up to it, or that the situation he saw before him called for it. For God’s creative act, neither explanation is available. No situation confronted him, before the world was; still less had he undergone a personal history, such as might have directed his invention into one channel, rather than another. 
   The lovers of music and poetry may, indeed, protest that neither the history nor the predicament of the great artist will account for the form of his creations. There is an element of sheer inventiveness which is his supreme glory, and his most godlike power. True, maybe, but of no assistance to us. For while sheer inventiveness may be godlike, it is not an explanation; not a principle pointing to the production of one work, rather than another. It is simply the ability to make both excellent and new whatever is made. 
   Once a work of art is on the stocks, and in process of construction, we can see (though we might not foresee) reasons inclining genius to develop it, and fill it out, in a certain manner. But the reasons, such as they are, lie in the beginning made, the sketch projected, or the skeleton already set up. The intelligibility of the choices which develop a project leaves the choice which first fixed upon it as unintelligible as ever it was. 
   All human analogy fails us. We can cast no light on the choice God makes in creating the world he creates, because we cannot, even in imagination, set up the experiment —cannot put the alternatives for selection on the table, nor construct the selective mechanism. What we feel bound to say about divine decision merely serves to put it beyond the range of human conceiving. God’s mind, we say, does not labour, like ours, through a multitude of suggestions; he goes straight to the goal of his choice. He does not start with shadowy might-have-beens, and fill one of them out with the substance of being. He simply decrees what is; the might-have-beens are accompanying shadows of the actual, the other ways in God knows he could have created and did not. 
   We may say such things; we cannot think them. The creator’s choice is an abyss, where human thought drowns. As in a dream, we spread our hands to swim, and find what seemed water to be a thin vapour. Our customary strokes obtain no purchase; we might say we are sinking, if the medium in which we are were gross enough to be felt, in being fallen through; or if there were any bottom for us to strike.”
(Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, pp. 62–64)

So God's choosing looks nothing like our choosing. What does it look like then? Farrer goes on to sketch some parables of how divine choice might look. I might blog those later. What do you think? Any thoughts in the comment section are gratefully received.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Luke 13.10–17

Why did the Hebrew people have a Sabbath Day? The answer most people give comes from the book of Exodus, where we read,
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20.8,11)
Woven into the fabric of the universe, there is a pattern of work and rest, and God’s people are mandated to observe that pattern too. Just as God created the universe for six days, so we should have six days of work and then the seventh day, where we cease from all creativity, where we offer our worship to God. And so if we think about the Sabbath as a reminder of the necessity to cease from activity, then the way we keep it will emphasise rest. We will keep it in the way they do on the Isle of Lewis. I had a friend who spent a summer holiday on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and the people he was staying with were members of the Free Church of Scotland. On Sunday morning, they would go to Kirk in the morning, have something to eat when they got home, and then go to bed. My friend walked around Stornoway that afternoon, and told me of the profound lack of activity, and the drawn curtains of the houses of the pious islanders.

The way we talk about Sabbath, emphasizing the cessation of activity, generally reinforces this ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested’ paradigm. But we often forget that the Old Testament gives another reason for the Sabbath in the book of Deuteronomy,
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you…  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut. 5.12,15)
You all know the story which provides the background to this command: Israel had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. As time went on, the Israelites were made the slaves of the Egyptians. They were forced into back breaking labour making bricks, day after day, with no future, with no hope of rest, with no time even to worship God. Every day, the Hebrew slaves were told that the only worth they had was found in how many bricks they produced. In desperate exhaustion, they cried to God, and God heard them and freed them and gave them the gift of rest. The message of the Sabbath day was much more than, ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested take care of yourself and have a day off’, it was a message from God which said ‘No human being can ever claim to own you, you are no longer a slave, you don’t have to work for a master who always asks for more.’ Sabbath was given because God hates oppression. Sabbath was a gift from God which proclaimed that his people were free.

Now, I think that when the Synagogue leader in the gospel reading thought about the Sabbath, he had the Stornoway Sabbath in mind. Angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, he says ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day’ (v. 14). 

But Jesus thinks differently. Here is a woman with a condition which leaves her unable to raise her head or to look at the people who are speaking to her. Eighteen years she has been bound, physically bowed down. As a woman she was already a second class citizen. Suffering from her disability she would probably have been ostracised from  her community. Doubly untouchable. She was weighed down to the ground with the condition she had suffered for such a long time, practically invisible to those she lived with. And Jesus saw her. I think that offers hope to any number of us who feel small, bowed down, who feel invisible. Jesus is the one who notices those who everyone else ignores. He sees us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Jesus sees this invisible woman and set her free. The Synagogue leader could only see the restriction of ‘you’ve got six days in which to do work’. Jesus realised that what the Sabbath is really about is liberation from slavery. In the case of this woman the slavery to the condition which has bound her many years. Couldn’t the healing of the woman wait for another, more appropriate day? No. There is no more appropriate day than the Sabbath on which to liberate a child of Abraham than the Sabbath day, the day that proclaims God’s hatred of oppression, whether oppression by disease, or oppression by religious leaders and traditions which tie up heavy burdens to weigh people down to the ground.

To reinforce his point, Jesus reminds the synagogue leader of his own Sabbath behaviour: On the Sabbath he unburdens his livestock to lead them to water – if a beasts who have been bound only a short time can be liberated on the Sabbath, how much more a daughter of Abraham who has been bound for eighteen years. 

The Sabbath is about liberty. Later in this service when we give thanks to God for his goodness and for his liberating power revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we will pray these words ‘This day the risen Lord walks with your gathered people, unfolds for us your word, and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. And though the night will overtake this day you summon us to live in endless light, the never-ceasing sabbath of the Lord.’ We look for the dawning of a Sabbath that will never end, and so as we wait for that day our task is to make every day a Sabbath, an opportunity to proclaim the liberty of God’s kingdom. What traditions and practices and behaviours do we as a church have which bind people and make them an invisible underclass? How can we liberate those who have been oppressed by the communities which are supposed to proclaim the liberty of the children of God? May we be people who live and proclaim with integrity the liberty of God’s kingdom.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

By faith...

I've always struggled with the litany of 'heroes of faith' in Hebrews 11, particularly the way that it has been used to valorize violence and martyrdom. Here was my attempt to deal honestly with a difficult text.

Hebrews 11.29–12.2
Luke 12.49–56

What is faith? That seems a good question for us to ask. The truth is that, while I am sure we would all say that we have faith, I am also sure that we don’t spend much time thinking about what faith is. One popular answer is offered by Richard Dawkins: ‘Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’ Well, love him or hate him, when you read the Epistle to the Hebrews and its statement that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,’ (Heb. 11.1) you begin to think that Richard Dawkins may have a point! Perhaps faith does, simply mean ‘credulity’ or something like that? And then you read the examples of faith which the writer to the Hebrews highlights, Warriors, Kings, Prophets and Martyrs. No doubt wonderful people. But if faith is a blind hope of future glory, it can be hard to read a litany of martyrs like that of Hebrews 11 without thinking of those who even today, destroy themselves and many others with them for the hope of a martyrs reward in paradise. Faith, holy war and martyrdom are a potent and often savage combinations. They represent the abandonment of reason and the embrace of violence. Really, is this how we are to show our devotion to God, either by inflicting or suffering violence?

But to read this passage from Hebrews and to take holy war and martyrdom from it as our bench-marks of what faith looks like would be a huge mistake. Because if we were to do that we would forget that what these people are commended for is not martyrdom, or heroism, or military might, or cunning, or wisdom or success or even for being persecuted. They win God’s approval because of their faith, and nothing else. Faith might have motivated them to do good things. Sometimes faith motivated them to foolish, morally questionable and sometimes downright wicked actions. 

Take one of the ‘heroes of faith’ on our role call, Jephthah the Gileadite. You may not have heard of him before. He was one of the early rulers of Israel, they were called ‘Judges’. Jephthah believed in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises to give them a land of peace and security. But life in the promised land brought Israel into conflict with other nations. Jephthah was preparing to do battle with the Ammonites, and in faith, he prayed to God ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering’ (Judges 11.30–31). He returned to his home victorious, and his daughter came out to greet him. And so Jephthah murdered his daughter. Faith in God’s promise led Jephthah to unimaginable wickedness. Surely we can find better examples of faith? Why is this man, of all men, worthy of our consideration? Not because of the cruelty to which his faith led him, but because, with all of his moral fallibility, he believed that God was able to bring about the future of peace he had promised.

To believe that God is able, even when the odds are stacked against you. That takes faith. To believe that, even though everything looks like it is going well for you, if God’s future dawns, it will do so because God has done it, and not ultimately because of our excellence and skill. That takes faith. 

For the people who originally received this letter, probably Jewish converts to Christianity (that’s why the book is called Hebrews) living in Rome, the temptation was to give up believing in God’s promise. They had probably suffered loss of friends, alienation from family, possibly the confiscation of property. Those word’s of Jesus in the gospel reading – son against father, mother against daughter – this was reality for some of these early Christians. The state they were in provided every reason to give up. To throw in the towel. But the writer of this letter wanted to draw their attention to these people of faith from the past. People who believed in God’s promise. Who’s lives were often morally compromised, but who believed that whatever their present circumstances, God could bring about what he had pledged. 

And here’s the thing: All those people, who had faith in the past did not receive the fulness of God’s promise – The messiah for whom they waited was still in the distant future. Therefore – the writer says – surrounded by such a company of faithful people who continued to hope in God’s future even though they did not receive it’s fulfillment, how much more should we who have received the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ continue to trust in the promises God has already fulfilled and will bring to completion. The heroes of faith in the past didn’t even know what the course they were running looked like or where it would take them. But we have received the fulfillment of what they were looking for: Jesus, the pioneer of faith.  He is the one who ran ahead of us and marked out the course for us, faithful even through the disaster of crucifixion. He now stands ready to receive us when the race is run. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith (there is no our in the original Greek text).

We are surrounded by this vast cloud of people, too many to count, all who bear witness that God remained faithful, and that he is able to bring his promise to fulfillment. A great cloud of witnesses who cannot run the race for us, but who are willing us on. The best thing we can do, as they did, is to keep our eyes our eyes fixed on Jesus, who not only marked out the path of faith, but who has the power to bring faith to its completion. To make God’s future for the world a reality.

As a church, we have known many difficulties in the past few years, and we’ve had a number of successes too. How can we be people who aren’t seduced by our successes into thinking that we can build the church under our own steam? How can we be people who aren’t discouraged to the point of giving up by our failures? If we are to be people of faith, I think that it may look something like this: we will daily ask ourselves – ‘what is the future God has promised? Do I trust that, whatever we may or may not do, that God faithful to that promise and will bring it about? How can that promise inspire us to continue running, and to help my faith work for peace and not violence? How does that promise threaten and challenge us? What are the weights and encumbrances, the behaviors and beliefs, which we need to cast off to run efficiently. And finally, are we keeping our eyes fixed on the faithful trailblazer, who alone has the power to bring God’s purposes for the world to completion?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Omnes Amandi...

From a sermon of St Augustine on the privilege of being an overseer in the church of God. Preached on the anniversary of his ordination...

"The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved."
(Sermon 340)

Omnes amandi. All must be loved – The hardest, most beautiful words on the privilege of being a minister.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Farrer on the Holy Trinity...

Two quotes from Austin Farrer on the Holy Trinity:

From The End of Man p.70–71
"The heart of being, the blessed Trinity above all worlds, is not a mystery by which the knowledge of Godhead is withheld from our inquiring minds. It is a pattern of life into which we ourselves, by an unspeakable mercy, are taken up. For Christ joins us with himself in the continual , practical, daily choice of his Father as our father. Why, he makes us part of himself, he calls us his members, his eyes, and tongue, his hands and feet. He puts us where he is, in Sonship to his Father, and opens to us the inexhaustible and all–quickening fountain, the Spirit of Sonship, the river of life, the Holy Ghost."

From Saving Belief p.65–66
"The grand rule of theology is this: nothing can be denied of God which we see to be the highest and best in creaturely existence. Now in us, personal relationship is as valuable as personality itself. Friendship, mutual discourse, common action —these things are as valuable as the power to think and to feel; without them, we might scarcely care whether we could think and feel, or not. How can we deny mutual relation in the Godhead? God is love; not only loving to ants like us, but related by relations of love on his own level. The doctrine of the Trinity does not pretend to make God intelligible. It lays down certain requirements. It says that if God is to be God, the Godhead must be at once more perfectly one than any one of us, and allow also for a mutual love more outgoing than is found in any two of us. We do not know how these seemingly opposed requirements are fulfilled and reconciled in the Godhead; we only know they must be. If we wish, we may define the divine level of being as that level, above all our conceiving, where unity of life and discourse of mutual love most perfectly combine. I hope you will see that this is not an empty speculation, a pretence of knowing what cannot be known. God is whom we worship; we worship the sovereign unity, we worship the infinite love; nor do we worship two realities, we worship one God who is both."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Holy, Holy, Holy...

Trinity Sunday, with a little help from Richard of St Victor...

Trinity Sunday. Many preachers are scared of it, I’m sure mainly because we spend so little time talking about God the rest of the year, as opposed to what we ought to do for God or what God has done for us. But this is one Sunday on which a preacher can’t avoid talking about God without looking silly! Most congregations dread the yearly dose of peculiar maths and tortured logic (unless they get a particular kick out of watching preachers squirm). Personally, I relish it. I relish it because, despite the strangeness of the idea, despite the headache it can sometimes bring on, I need to think about who God is, and not just about what God does or how I can serve God. So who is God? God is one sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent,  gracious, merciful divine nature existing wholly and without remainder in three divine persons. Now that is a mind-bender.

The important thing to remember though, is that the Trinity isn’t a maths problem which can be solved by considering shamrocks or eggs or H2O. Neither is the Trinity a way of describing the different things God does, which is why substituting ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ for ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier’ is not really all that helpful. After all, is the Son not also the creator and the sanctifier of his people? What about the Spirit? Veni Creator Spiritus? Does the Father not also redeem and sanctify? The ways we often think about the Trinity are generally not that helpful after all. So should we just give up, or is there a better way of understanding what we mean when we say that God is ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’?

Hold in your mind for a moment the belief that ‘God is love’. That’s an uncontroversial starting point. Generally, if we believe in God at all, we believe that the most significant thing we can say about God is that God is love. In fact, some of you might be thinking that we would be better off if we just left it at that! But what is love? I suppose a very basic definition is that love is the deep affection one person has for another. Love gives itself to the beloved. We might say that a particularly vain person ‘loves themselves’, but I don’t think we would see that as a positive trait. So ‘God is love’, must mean that God is the most supremely loving being, which in turn means that God must love another.

Now here comes the tougher bit. Imagine the time before the universe existed. Before the Big Bang 13.7 Billion years ago, before the rapid expansion in which electrons were formed, before gas began to condense into nebulae and stars, before suns exploded and formed planets, long before life ever evolved. Before we ever existed for God to love us. Imagine, if you can, the time before time itself existed, the moment where all there is, is God, the God who we call love. How can God be love if, in that moment before anything else exists, God is all alone, with no one else to love? If we really think that the greatest thing we can say about God is that God is love, then there must be another: a lover and a beloved. You must have at least two in a relationship of self-giving love.

Now that’s pretty cool. God is love, so there must be plurality in God! But wait a minute, you’ve said that there must be a lover and a beloved. That makes two. But this is Trinity Sunday? What about the third? What about the Holy Spirit? Think about the best human relationships you have ever seen, think of a family, for instance, which is truly beautiful, whose door is always open, whose table always has a spare seat for a guest. Think of the Weasley family from Harry Potter; a family in which the love between its members expresses itself in love for other people, and isn't diminished by that sharing, but is beautified even more. A family which has such strong love that it overflows and gives love and life to others. I'm sure we've all met families like that. The love can't just be contained among its members. If that’s true for human beings, how much more so for God, in whom we see supremely perfect love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and together, from the perfection of their love, love goes out to a third, the Holy Spirit. 

So when we think about the Holy Tinity, we are not thinking about a maths problem. We are thinking about a set of relationships. The Father is the source of divine life, the Son is begotten and beloved by the Father, the Spirit is the eternal object of their mutual love. One God, a community of perfect love. The truth is that as Christians, we don’t just worship ‘God’. We worship this relationship of eternal love which the Father, the Son and the Spirit have. And just like the beautiful family we thought about a moment ago, that eternal community of love draws us into its love, bids us sit at its table, offers its life to us. Why not just one God, all alone? Because only this community of love can draw us into God's own life.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Stay in the city...

Luke 24.44–53

One of the more peculiar aspects of my job is that I am expected to go away on a kind of spiritual holiday, every year at the expense of my parish! I have sometimes wondered what the PCC treasurer would think if I told him I was going to spend my retreat in Barbados. I hope he would be supportive. I usually end up somewhere much less exotic, like Sussex. This three day spiritual vacation, known as a ‘retreat’ by those in the know, is something that any other member of my congregation would need to use their annual holiday, and hard earned cash for… not me, not only is paid for me, I get it in addition to my annual leave! Three days, in the countryside, I suppose you might say that it is one of the few perks of a clergyman’s job! Retreats are fairly commonplace. Anyone who is due to be ordained in the Church of England will probably be expected to go on a retreat immediately before their ordination: a time of peace and quiet, a time of prayer in which you can think deep thoughts about your impending ordination. We probably all hanker after something like this, particularly when we face a big change or challenge. We  want to draw back, to take stock and to recharge our batteries and prepare ourselves.

Now you would think that, as Jesus was about to leave his disciples with one of the most daunting of tasks – taking the message of Jesus to the whole world – he would urge them to go on retreat to a quiet place, wouldn’t you? Surely, the conventional wisdom would say, ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, so go off to the countryside, spend some time praying and relaxing, some time in silence, waiting for God to guide you, because it is going to be hard work.’ But that isn’t what Jesus says: ‘so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Not, ‘Go back to Galilee’, but stay in the city. The same place where forty days earlier, Jesus had been arrested, beaten and executed. 'Stay there'. The same place that was so dangerous for the disciples that they fled and hid for fear of their lives. ‘Stay there’, Jesus says, and wait for God’s power.

The city, a place where the church is weak, powerless, threatened; the place where the church must wait for God to provide what she cannot produce for herself: the desire and the strength to take the good news of Jesus to the world. Our culture likes to tell us that there is nothing we cannot do. If someone is weak, they need to become strong; if someone is unemployed they need to get a job; if you aren’t good at something you need to work harder until you are good at it. Everything is down to us.

We can be guilty of thinking that way in Church too. We have to work harder, be more persuasive, have the right kind of worship, preach amazing sermons, and if we do that, the church will stop shrinking and everything will be alright. But as Jesus prepares the church for his absence, he wants them to know that they aren’t powerful. He wants them to stay in the place that reminds them of their weakness, and to wait for God’s presence, God’s strength to come to them. 

Perhaps we need to stop running and hiding from our weakness, stop trying to find havens to retreat to which make us feel strong, and stay for a while in the place where our weakness is obvious and wait there for God’s strength.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Offering ourselves in the power of Jesus' self offering...

Thought I might share this snippet from the great twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, with my class this evening. I found it whilst doing some work for a Sermon and it struck me as quite a beautiful summary of the eucharistic offering.
"From the time of his ascension onwards [Jesus'] followers have met together to unite themselves with him in his sacrifice, by doing again what he did at this, the spiritual crisis of [his] ministry. They meet in his name, and he is in the midst of them; they are members of his body and he acts through them. Still by the hands of the priest, he takes the bread which he calls his body, breaks it and gives it. But we are that body – "very members incorporate" therein. In union with his perfect sacrifice, we offer to God "ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice" to him. Still we drink the cup, that his blood, his life given in sacrifice and triumphant over death, may be in us the spring of eternal life in fellowship with him. Whether or not he commanded us to use this rite, as I believe that he did, yet its significance and power consists in the fact that we do in remembrance of him what he did "in the same night in which he was betrayed," offering ourselves in the power of his self offering."
William Temple, Readings in St John's Gospel, 220

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The most obeyed commandment...

I have been doing some teaching prep for the start of tomorrow evening's 'Liturgical Ministry in the Church' course. I know these words from Gregory Dix are well worn, but I am always struck by them.
"Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God."
Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Plain Speaking ...

John 10.22–30

Jesus says, “What the Father has given me”, which, if you look carefully at the reading is a reference to his flock, the church, “What the father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand” (John 10.30). Just pause for a minute and consider what Jesus is saying: He considers his church to be the most precious thing in the world. To which most of us reply… Really? Have you seen the church? This rag-tag assembly, hopelessly stuck in the past, it’s faded glory reminding us of a simpler age of faith, of the goodness of community, of all those things we romanticize about, but secretly are rather glad we left behind. Like a fossil, the church seems generally incapable of any great influence for good, and far too often, responsible for great ill. In truth, for most of us, the church is a cause of doubt rather than an inspiration for faith, hope and love. How on earth can Jesus say that the church is greater than all else?

The church has such a bad reputation these days that it is probably the last place you would choose to set out on a spiritual journey. Surely a place with fewer taboos, with less hierarchy, with less prejudice would be the community you would choose to sustain the journey of faith? A place where God was more unambiguously present? 

The crowd gathered around Jesus didn’t want ambiguity or cryptic stories about God’s kingdom which Jesus had been offering, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly’ (10.24). But faith is never like that. As we grow and wrestle with our faith, we all have times when all we want is clarity, ‘tell me plainly, God…’. The important thing to remember is that knowledge of God doesn’t come through plain, unarguably clear facts. Whilst we rightly strive to know God, God cannot be known fully through our hardest striving, or most clear thinking.

Knowledge of God comes as a gift from God.

The gift of knowing God comes to us in Jesus Christ. 

But to receive the gift of knowing God in Jesus, we have to open ourselves up to listening to Jesus. On the face of it, the crowd wanted to listen to Jesus, ‘Tell us’, they say, ‘are you the Messiah?’ But the truth was that they were only interested in listening if Jesus was willing to fit within the confines of their own preconceptions. But to listen whilst only being prepared to have our opinions confirmed, is really not to listen at all. To listen to Jesus means listening in such a way that we open ourselves up to being surprised by how different the God who shows himself to us in weakness and vulnerability of  this extraordinary human being truly is.

Jesus says that the place where we can hear his voice, follow him and receive his life, the place where we can  begin to open ourselves up to the counterintuitive way in which God works, is the weak, vulnerable, messy, disappointingly old-fashioned, much beloved, and amazingly beautiful community we call the church.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rabbits, Reproduction, Resurrection...

For the last couple of years I have gone to the Easter vigil at Guildford Cathedral to present candidates for confirmation. Imagine a huge church, full of people, most of whom will be slightly puzzled by the strange and elaborate ritual which is going on around them, some of whom might have very little understanding of Christianity whatsoever - and there is the bishop, ready to give a sermon, something uplifting and memorable. Imagine my horror then, when last year, the preacher launched into a tirade… against the Easter Bunny. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for my bishop. But really… the Easter Bunny? … The poor, helpless, fluffy, pom-pom tailed, chocolate giving Rabbit of Easter? The bishop, by the way, preferd the humble Easter Egg as a symbol of the new life of the resurrection. Anyway, this attack on the Easter Bunny stuck with me all year. I suppose it was at least memorable! So as we are in the season of Easter, I wanted to present the case for the defense: Why is the Easter bunny, not only a legitimate symbol of the resurrection, but better an inherently better one than the Easter Egg.

I don’t really blame the bishop for preferring the egg to the bunny. The egg is rather obviously a symbol of new life. To appreciate the bunny as a resurrection symbol you have to think like someone from the middle ages. Medieval monks used to look at the world around them as closely as they could, they would look for signs of God in trees and plants, in mountains and stars. And, in ways which seem quite amusing anyone who has learnt even a modicum of science, they looked for God's fingerprints in the behaviour of the beasts, tracing the hand of God in his creation. They would compile books called bestiaries, which tried to unpack the religious significance of the beasts. The Pelican, for instance. A noble bird which the medieval monks believed, in times of famine, fed its young with blood which it would draw from its own breast – a symbol of the Son of God giving his body for food to the faithful. What an honorable creature the Pelican is, a fitting symbol of the Eucharist. Of course, they had got it all wrong but, hey, it was a good story. 

Then we have the somewhat less nobel rabbit. The rabbit doesn’t sacrifice its life, or selflessly serve its neighbor. The rabbit reproduces. In fact, the rabbit is such a prolific breeder that medieval monks thought that rabbits were hermaphrodites and could just reproduce whenever they wanted. So whilst the egg may be a symbol of new life, but the bunny is a symbol of abundant, overflowing, uncontrollably generative life. And that is why I think the Easter Bunny trumps the Easter Egg. An egg contains one, new life, but if your think like a medieval monk, a rabbit contains inexhaustible life. A rabbit isn’t just alive, it has the capacity to give life to lots and lots of other rabbits. This serves as an analogy of Jesus Christ, who when he was raised from the dead, was not merely alive, he was alive in such a way, with such an abundance of life, that he can give life to the whole universe. 

Easter was more than a miracle. It was the miracle of miracles. It was the miracle which makes all things miraculous.

Saturday, April 06, 2013


Revelation 1.4–8

We all know about the book of Revelation. It sits there, at the end of the bible, casting its somewhat ominous gaze into the future. Most people know it from peculiar books from America involving the sudden mid-flight disappearance of christian airline pilots, or from fragments of the book which appear in horror movies about the anti-christ or daemon possession – perhaps most notably for Guildfordians the 1976 Gregory Peck movie, The Omen, with its infamous scene at Guildford Cathedral. Everyone knows about the cryptic ‘666’ on the child, Damien’s scalp. And Patrick Troughton playing the slightly deranged priest, Fr. Brennan, quoting prophecy about the Anti-Christ to Damien’s father. We all know about the book of Revelation, and frankly, it all seems a bit odd. We all know about it, but we don’t know it. Which is why we are going to look at it today.

We are used to thinking of the book as a kind of prophecy, predicting weird and wacky events in the future. But instead of that, try thinking of it as letter. The opening words we read are the customary way that a first century person would start a letter. Listen to this opening sentence of an ancient letter: ‘Gaius Pliny to Septicius Clarus, his friend, greetings’, or St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace’. Now hear St. John, ‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace’. 

Revelation is a letter, and we are not the original intended recipients, which is why it often sounds completely mad to us. It is a letter written to seven churches in ancient Asia-minor, modern day Turkey. Churches which were facing persecution, and churches which also had some really normal church stuff going on. Christians were faithfully continuing God’s work despite struggles. They were having arguments about belief. Some of them were running after the latest religious trends. Perhaps most significant for us today, there was a good deal of apathy among the churches. Luke-warmness. Lack of commitment. I think it is quite encouraging, on a very basic level, to remember that the church was never perfect. The way we sometimes speak, you would think that the church started perfect and got progressively worse until you get to… well… now. But even at the very beginning, the church was a mess, and the church was also beautiful.

So this letter was written to give these Christians some perspective. Perspective which told them that in the midst of suffering and persecution, God hadn’t forgotten his people. That despite disunity and some of the grubbiness of human life, the church was still the place where Jesus’ resurrection life was bringing about new creation.

So what does this letter seek to lift the curtain on? What hidden truth does it seek to reveal?

Think about the opening greeting, John wishes ‘grace and peace’ for the seven churches. But this isn’t his grace and peace, it is God’s. Grace and peace aren’t words people would immediately associate with the book of Revelation. It seems to be a book more filled with divine judgement than divine mercy, or violence than peace. But perhaps we need to read the more ominous parts of Revelation in the light of these words. God’s purpose to the church and the world is not hostile, and this letter seeks to reinforce the message of God’s unshakeable love, and his ongoing project of bringing about peace.

The second thing to think about is the way that God is described. God is the God who is. This sentence is the most mangled bit of Greek in the whole book. First of all, if you or I were writing this we would probably go in chronological order, past to future. We would probably say ‘Grace to you and peace, from he who was, who is, and who is to come’. But John messes about with the obvious order. He says, ‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’ 

For us, the present moment is always experienced as part of a process, moving from the past to the future. But for God, everything is the present moment. Past, future, everything is in the present tense. We move from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, and the trouble with ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’ beings, is that we struggle for perspective on life. We can’t change the past but we dwell on it. We can’t know the future but we obsess about it, and all of that living in the past or the future tends to make the present unbearable. But God, John says, isn’t moving from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ all exist to God as a present moment. A standing now. God exceeds all creation, even as he spreads wide his arms to embrace past, present and future. John wants us to set our lives, our triumphs and failures, our joys and sorrows, and every experience we have in between, in the context of God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The one who holds all our times in his powerful embrace.

Here is where the grammar gets even more wierd. I might have written that God ‘is, was and will be’, all of which are tenses of the verb ‘to be’. But John writes that God ‘is, was, and is to come’. This brings us to the power of John’s message, because, like us, the first century churches were dealing with the dissonance of proclaiming that in the resurrection Jesus really has triumphed over the forces of darkness, and living in a world where those forces still feel as strong as ever. When church is going badly, or for that matter when church is going well, how do we avoid the twin pitfalls of triumphalism or despair? Not by trying to make church better, but by remembering who God is, the one who is to come. The work Easter is God’s and not ours, we are his co-workers, but not in such a way as the final triumph of good over evil depends on our brilliant plans. God is the beginning, and God is the end. He will come and complete his work.

Sunday, March 31, 2013


                                            Rise heart;  thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
                                                                                  Without delays,
                                            Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                                                                                  With him mayst rise:
                                            That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
                                            His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

                                            Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
                                                                                  With all thy art.
                                            The cross taught all wood to resound his name
                                                                                  Who bore the same.
                                            His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
                                            Is best to celebrate this most high day.

                                            Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
                                                                                  Pleasant and long:
                                            Or since all music is but three parts vied,
                                                                                  And multiplied;
                                            O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
                                            And make up our defects with his sweet art.

                                             I got me flowers to straw thy way;
                                             I got me boughs off many a tree:
                                             But thou wast up by break of day,
                                             And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

                                            The Sun arising in the East,
                                            Though he give light, and th’ East perfume;
                                            If they should offer to contest
                                            With thy arising, they presume.

                                            Can there be any day but this,
                                            Though many suns to shine endeavour ?
                                            We count three hundred, but we miss:
                                            There is but one, and that one ever.
George Herbert

Friday, March 29, 2013

Pedicures and the grace of God – John 13.1–35

Maundy, as I’m sure you’ve all heard before, came into the English language from the Latin word Mandatum which means 'commandment'. It is associated with this particular day because of the gospel reading we heard a moment ago, and that some words from it were traditionally sung as people’s feet were being washed – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus’ words haunt Christianity – the Christian community is to be characterised by a quality of love which is genuinely unique. But which of us, in our experience of the community which Jesus founded, the church, wouldn’t feel some hesitation in describing it with that daunting, four letter word, love? We know that the church ought to be a loving place, but love often seems to elude us.
I have to confess that the rite of foot washing is not one of my favorite rituals. Deep down, I’m rather glad that the medieval church hesitated from making it a sacrament. And I was even more glad when I discovered that it would be bishop Ian and not me presiding this evening! It’s true, that the foot as a symbol of filthiness is not as redolent as it once was. In ancient times, when people wore open sandals and walked on dusty streets,  feet would have been truly filthy. But socks and shoes and daily showers make feet less unpleasant than they once were. But even so, the thought of washing someones feet makes you think… what if their athletes foot is flaring up? What if they have a verruca, or some other unpleasantness on their feet? There are good reasons why, in the ordinary run of things, we don’t go round fondling each others feet, because whilst it is less unpleasant than it used to be, it is still unpleasant.

Which is why foot washing is a good symbol of love. Love is hard. Genuine love costs. Love is most truly shown in our willingness to do the really horrible things. We can understand this by analogy with our own experience of romantic love. In Louis de Bernières’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Dr Iannis finds out about love affair his daughter, Pelegia, has been having with an Itallian Army Captian, Corelli. She tells her father that she and Corelli are in love, and Dr Iannis shares his wisdom with her:
“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion… Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away… your roots grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom has fallen from your branches you find that you are one tree and not two.”
Love is what is left over when all of the euphoria and beauty of your first encounter dissipates and all that's left is the hard work of forgiveness, service and care. So to wrap a towel around your waist and wash feet, enacts love when love is hard.

But as hard as it is to genuinely love one another and serve one another in the way envisaged by Jesus, as easy as it is to be put off by people’s corns and unpleasant toenails, I don’t think it is the hardest thing Jesus asks us to do. Because it is possible to motivate ourselves to wash each others feet, to do the really horrible things, out of a misplaced sense of heroism, or devotion to our christian duty. We feel that this is simply what Christians ought to do, and so we put a peg on our noses and do it.

But in Jesus teaching to his disciples, there is something still harder… letting your feet be washed. Letting yourself be served. Those of you who are having your feet washed, when you heard the news that you were in the hot seat, how did you feel? You might have wanted to get on the phone and book an emergency pedicure? I remember that on my retreat before my ordination as deacon, bishop Christopher washed my feet. I made sure I packed my special toe-nail clippers that weekend! I wanted to make sure that my feet looked suitably diaconal, feet of dignity, befitting a man about to be ordained.  It can be profoundly uncomfortable letting someone do something for you as personal as washing your feet, and we see this discomfort in the way Peter responds to Jesus. He didn’t grumble when he was told to wash other people’s feet. But when Jesus knelt down to wash him, he was indignant. “You will never wash my feet Lord”. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”, Jesus replies.

I think this is one of the principle difficulties we all have with God. We find God hard to relate to, not because we are sinful and we know it, but because all to often, we feel too righteous to receive God’s love as a gift. We feel too holy to receive his grace. I mean, we are the holy ones aren’t we? We’re the ones who  rock out to church on a Thursday night in March when everyone else is at home. Foot washing might be hard, but we are the kind of people can accept the burden. We’re up to the task. When I wrap a towel around my waste and wash feet with this as my motivation, I do it because I feel like I have something to offer, some contribution to make which will make the world a better place, bring light and love into the lives of others, and will prove that I am worthy of God’s love. But the truth is that we have nothing to offer, except for filthy feet. We need to receive God’s grace before we can ever hope to give it. 

But the good news is that, when Jesus takes us and washes us, he can transform our tainted offering into something truly beautiful, something by which God’s grace and mercy can touch lives, and lead them to the one who can make us clean.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Becoming Small

I've been reading Karl Bath's little commentary on Philippians – This excerpt from his comments on Philippians 2 stood out for me:
"Paul sets over against [the self assertion of the Philippians] the fact that Christ does not make any such 'noli me tangere' out of his equality with God. He has no need to, because he is sure of his being equal with God. It is for that ver reason that he can also empty himself of the 'form of God', as it is presently put. 'He was in the form of God.' The expression therefore does not denote the same as 'equality with God'. En morphe theou hyparchein means to be God in outward appearance, immediately and directly knowable as such. Christ is God like that. Nothing prevents his being so only like that, mutatis mutandis like the people of Philippi who certainly not only are what they are but would also like to be seen for what they are, each in his own right, with his own point of view, with his own value which, in order to be value, of course seeks also outward credit.
But now, says Paul, Christ does not regard his equality with God in such a way as to cling to the form of God, or be bound to it. He is so much God's equal that he does not by any means have to make of his equality with God a thing to be asserted tooth and nail—not because he could also give it up, but because his possession of it (in contrast to the best that they can possess) is beyond dispute. When we are absolutely sure of a thing, we have no need to lay hold on it in the robber-like fashion described. To the extent to which two lovers, for example, really belong to each other, they can also give themselves freely, without fear of loosing themselves. So too the Son of God certainly does not give away his equality with God, does not give it up, but he does let go of it. From now on he is equal with God in the obscurity of the form of a servant. He is in humility the highest. The robber-like bearing, the half-anxious, half-greedy graspingness, the assertiveness and vanity of those in Philippi betrays the uncertainty of their possession. Christ, being equal with God, has no need to assert himself in that or to cling to it, but can renounce the outward appearance and credit that correspond to such being, without surrendering the being itself—indeed, in order precisely thereby (vv. 9 ff.) to bring it into credit."
(Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, 62–63) 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jesus encounters the darkness – John 9

A sermon preached at St Saviours Guildford on Sunday, 24 February 2013.

If you prefer listening to reading, you can hear the sermon here

We all know the type, the kind of person who has an instinctive ability to locate the button which makes me so angry that I think my head is going to explode, and who also has an utter inability to leave the button well alone.

Button pushers, we all know them, some of us might be them, we could all do without them. But here is the strange thing, Button Pushers are sometimes helpful. Take Jesus, for example. Have you ever wondered why Jesus performed so many of his miracles on the Sabbath day. I mean, if there was a big, red button which you didn’t want to press in first century palestine, it was the one marked ‘Sabbath Day’. But Jesus seems to be magnetically drawn to this particular button. Sure, the miracles he performed on the Sabbath were examples of divine compassion and love, they were good and beautiful works, but, couldn’t he have waited a day? Did he have to break Sabbath Laws? Make no mistake, that is exactly what Jesus has done in our reading. By Jesus’ day, good people, out of a desire to show love for God and diligence in keeping the law, had broken down the command to keep the Sabbath day holy into thirty-nine prohibited activities, one of which was kneading, which included any mixing of a liquid with a powder to make a paste… and that is exactly what Jesus did on this particular Sabbath. He spat on some mud and made a paste and smeared it on the blind man’s eyes and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam… and in doing that he pushed the big red button marked ‘Sabbath day’. 

Jesus seems to have brought division and an angry response wherever he went and whatever he said in John’s gospel. He had only just narrowly escaped being stoned to death in chapter eight because he claimed that he was worshipped by the patriarch Abraham. And now he provokes another confrontation. I suppose, if we are looking for an encounter with Jesus in this story, the encounter isn’t primarily with people, the encounter is with something much bigger, it is with darkness. John starts his gospel by telling us that the light sines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. In this chapter, just before Jesus makes the mud and smears it on the blind man’s eye’s, he echoes that theme, ‘so long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’. In this story, ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ become embodied in the characters and the way they respond to Jesus. This is story about the light of the world, invincibly encountering darkness, and we see that encounter in two ways:

The religious authorities
The healing itself, which brought physical light to the man born blind triggers a religious controversy. Clearly, suspicions had been raised when the healed man had spoken to his friends and neighbours about ‘the man called Jesus’ who had given him the gift of sight, so they brought the man to the Pharisees, the religious establishment of the day, to be questioned.

And so we have the two facts on which this religious trial rests: Work on the sabbath day is not allowed, but a miracle had been performed which was so exceptional that nobody had ever heard of anything like it (v.32). And the question is, which of those facts will be the focus of attention? Now that question might seem easy for us to answer today – clearly, people trump rules don’t they? I mean, certainly rules which don’t matter all that much, like being diligent in keeping the Sabbath day? It is easy for me to think that I would focus on the life giving miracle, and not on the broken rule, because in this instance, the rule doesn’t matter all that much to me. I don’t get particularly worked up over the Sabbath – perhaps I should! But what if the rule which had been broken was more significant to me? How would I react if the works of God seemed to be challenging some of my most deeply cherished religious or theological or moral views? I hope I would be keen sighted enough to discern what God was doing and courageous enough to  keep in step with him. But I know that there would be a good chance that I would be on the side of the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees, you see, were good devout people, they were serious about their faith, they were people who, in many ways, I think we would see eye to eye with. They believed in God, that he had revealed himself to Moses, that his will is enshrined in scripture, and that the response believers should make to show their love for God who has saved them is to be serious about walking in the will of the Lord. They knew how life should be lived. The attitude of the religious authorities is one of certainty, and I think that's where the problem lies, and that is where we can subtly change our behaviour. In verse 24 they say, ‘Give glory to God! We know this man is a sinner.’ In effect they were saying: ‘Give glory to God: Agree with us’. They were so convinced that they knew how God would act, that they were unwilling to see the works of God presented before their eyes. They were so sure that they know who God was that they were ignoring God in their midst.

It’s important that all of us who are serious about following Jesus, who are serious about giving glory to God, are never so sure that we leave no room to be silent and awestruck by God’s grace. None of us ever has such a firm grasp of who God is or what God does that there is no room left for growth, for challenge, for amazement. For the Pharisees, a little ignorance, a little confession of need, a little space for God to be God could have changed the direction the were walking in. But instead, they go deeper and deeper into the darkness, retreating from the light who has come into the world. They go from division among themselves (v. 16) to ever greater certainty that they are right. As they evaluate Jesus and his works, they remain closed. They think they see clearly, but by judging the Light of the World, they are moving to a deeper darkness. May God save us from knowing too much!

The man born blind.
But hear we have the blind man. The creator of the universe, who in the beginning took dirt and formed it into a human being and breathed life into it, that same creator now takes the dust of the earth, and uses it to bring about a new creation, to bring life and light where there had been darkness and despair.

But at the same time as the Pharisees are retreating from the light, the now healed man embraces the light more and more. He starts off not knowing very much at all, but he has a very basic certainty – which goes to show that it is not always a bad thing to be sure of your self: ‘I don’t know whether he is a sinner, one thing I know, I was blind, now I see’ (v. 25), whatever the religious authorities did to him, however they tried to pull rank on him, or call him a sinner, or make out that he was stupid, they couldn’t take that one thing away from him. He knew that Jesus had brought him light. He is certain of that one thing. At the heart of every disciple is, I think, a very simple experience of God’s grace. Maybe not an experience which provides all the answers, maybe it leaves us with even more questions than before. The likelihood is that the more we step into the light of Christ, the bigger our questions get and the more acutely aware of our ignorance we become. But there is still that basic certainty. Not a certainty that means we have understood God, or that we have God neatly packaged up, but a certainty that can see the difference God has made in his lives and can say, ‘I was blind, but now I see. I know that much’.

I remember hearing the story of a miner who had become a christian. His colleagues thought that it was all rather pathetic and teased him about his faith. ‘You don’t believe in all that nonsense do you? Surely, you can’t believe that Jesus turned water into wine?’ ‘I don’t know whether he turned water into wine’, the man replied, ‘But in my house, he turned beer into furniture.’ He wouldn’t speak beyond what he knew, but he did know the difference Jesus had made in his life. ‘I don’t know whether or not he is a sinner. One thing I know, I was blind, now I see.’

But Jesus also gives increasing clarity to the man’s spiritual vision. Did you spot how the way he speaks about Jesus progresses as he comes under more and more pressure? He starts in verse 11, simply by saying ‘The man they Called Jesus’. By verse 17 he is calling Jesus ‘a Prophet’, someone who represents God and authoritatively speaks his word. Ten verses later Jesus has become someone who might be followed as a disciple, and the man indicates that this is exactly what he is ‘do you want to become his disciples too?’ (9.27). In verse 33, the man confesses that Jesus is ‘from God’. And by the end of the chapter, he not only calls Jesus ‘Lord’, and acknowledges him as ‘The Son of Man’, he falls on his knees in worship (9.38). His interrogators may have ordered him to ‘give glory to God’ by disowning Jesus, but the healed man glorifies god in the only way he knows how – by worshiping Jesus. The kind of spiritual sight which we see in the healed man begins and ends in worship, in the acknowledgement that true light doesn’t belong to us as a possession, but comes to us as a gift.

And the light really does come to him. After he has been accused, and written off and excommunicated, expelled from the community which provided him with some meagre support, Jesus comes and finds him (v.35). The man doesn’t go looking for Jesus. Jesus the good shepherd, whose sheep hear his voice and answer his call. The shepherd who searches for the one, beloved, lost member of his flock. Jesus finds this man, and welcomes him. That is the deepest truth of the Christian experience: Jesus. Found. Me.

It’s quite strange to pick this chapter of John’s gospel as an example of an ‘encounter’ with Jesus. Because for the vast majority of the story, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. He leaves in verse seven, so Jesus isn’t actually present when the miracle takes place. We are reminded of Jesus’ absence in verse 12, where the healed man says he doesn’t know where Jesus is, and we don’t see Jesus again right until the final scene of the story in verse 35. Surely, there are better examples of encounters with Jesus? But in another sense, ‘encountering Jesus’ happens throughout the story. He is encountered, not in person, but in the life of the man whose world has been transformed and been made new and beautiful because of his encounter with Jesus Christ. It is his testimony, his transformed life, which is impossible to argue against cogently. In his life we see the invincible light of the world bringing healing and joy and welcome and acceptance. And I want to close by saying that the same can be true for each of us: Jesus, the light of the world, will encounter people through our transformed lives, and we will encounter him in the lives of others, if we have eyes to see.