Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2022

This was a short sermon (actually probably a little too long even then) for our early service on Trinity Sunday. The sermon itself suddenly came to me very quickly, and was a response to people often asking me ‘why does the Trinity matter?’. I’m not saying that this is the only reason, or that the Trinity doesn’t matter, but the thought came to me that it’s very complexity is appropriate to our times.

When Rosie asked me if I would like to preach this morning, she didn’t mention it was Trinity Sunday until after I had agreed.
And Trinity Sunday does seem to create fear in the hearts of preachers everywhere, which is a pity when it is also our patronal feast.
So why is this? It depends on how we want to talk about the nature of the Trinity, and certainly the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most intellectually complex things that you can try and get your head around in Christian theology.
But do we need to get our heads around it? Understanding intellectual complexity isn’t the benchmark of Christian faith.
I would argue that it is far more important to our faith to understand the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, and if we really start thinking about that, it is far more complex and difficult to get our head around than any of the arguments about the natures, persons, substances, and wills of the Trinity, and how many of each there are and how they relate to each other.
So why have we made the Trinity so complex? Why do we argue about it so much? The fundamental theological disagreement between western and orthodox Christianity, even 968 years later, is still the double procession of the Holy Spirit. Why did this matter so much to people.
And why do I think it shouldn’t matter now.
It mattered, in a way, because of science, and it doesn’t matter now so much, again because of science, or what we would now call science, and was once called philosophy.
It mattered because the people who had these arguments inhabited a world view where there was an idea that you could measure and define the world. And this became wrapped up in ancient and mediaeval views of rationalism and the relationship of science and religion. The idea that God had made us rational beings so that we could understand his creation, and had made his creation rational for us so that we could witness him through that creation.
We live in a very different scientific view of the world now. We have to understand that the cosmos is a more complex and mysterious place than we can possibly imagine. Many scientists still haven’t made this jump, but I think many Christians would instinctively understand it.
As one of my lecturers once said ‘you can’t put God in a box’. It was unfortunate that we had just been discussing the Ark of the Covenant, which rather undermined his argument at the time, but I think modern Christianity understands well that God is beyond our understanding. As we may say later in the Eucharist – ‘great is the mystery of faith’. Great indeed.
We understand now that God cannot be understood by us, and I think we are comfortable with an ambiguity and fluidity in our understanding of God that I think the apostles were also comfortable with, but which I think intervening generations forgot and we have only recently recovered.
Ambiguity and fluidity are core to our lives these days. There are plenty of people who bemoan this, as if it is removing the certainties of the old days, undermining us in some way, but the truth is that those certainties were never really there – they were just constructs that we created – walls that stopped us seeing too far in case we scared ourselves.
And I believe that as Christians, we should be at the forefront of accepting and understanding and embracing these ambiguities and flexibilities because we are confronted with them constantly, in the irreconcilable paradox that is the Holy Trinity. So rather than trying to analyse and dissect the nature of God, we should rather learn to love the complex and ambiguous God who has poured their love into our complex and ambiguous life themselves.

Palm Sunday

This sermon was for a BCP service on Palm Sunday, so the Gospel reading was Matthew 27:1-54, which is his account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

Reading the Gospel passage we have just heard made me think when I first heard it about the nature of time, and how we perceive it. Just last Friday, I was being interviewed by HR and being asked when certain events had occurred, and I realised that there were some events where I couldn’t remember if they had happened in August 2021 or August 2020. I suspect I am not the only person in that situation, where lockdown has compressed the whole feeling of time over the last couple of years?
But why did this passage provoke thoughts of time, even before that uncomfortable interview?
I think it is partially because this passage feels like it is being read at the wrong time. This is Palm Sunday – Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem as the messiah, waved and cheered on by throngs of people confident that the day of the Lord had arrived.
Yet our reading, by the vagaries of the BCP lectionary, is a whistle-stop account of the passion and crucifixion. It’s too early to be reading this – this should be next Friday…
Sometimes the lectionary does this because we are trying to compress the whole of history into a single calendar year each year. The Annunciation, biologically correctly nine months before Christmas, always seems uncomfortably close to Easter.
But in the case of Easter, there is no compression of time. We do go from triumph to despair and back again in the space of one week. Creation and salvation are both encompassed in seven days…
How can events move so quickly, we might think, and yet we live in an era where this is exactly what is happening. Events develop with such speed, that time seems to move faster and faster. The pace of modern life is relentless, always moving on, chewing up the next event and the next.
It makes it a sobering thought then that the war in Ukraine is in its sixth week already, and also both terrible and gratifying that it is still making headlines. Terrible because the headlines are driven by death and destruction on a scale that we are not used to in Europe in the 21st century, gratifying that such atrocities still have the capacity to shock us, even if it is only because they are so close to home. Because there are other wars going on, right now, but further away, which have faded from our consciousness; where the compassion fatigue has set in. It is a depressing reality that ‘the west’ is complicit in so many of them, but if the message of Easter is anything, it is a message that we are always all complicit in all the affairs of the world.
The Easter story is terrifyingly relevant even in a secular way today – it encompasses so much of the political behaviours that we still see in the world.
We see the fickleness of the people – one day saluting Jesus as a hero and king, and four days latter calling for his death. Led not by their own reason, but by rumour and propaganda.
We see the temple leaders stirring up this mob with rhetoric and lies, twisting events to their own profit and ends.
We see Pilate, the absolute governor, struggling to control events that he does not understand. Taking the easy route out even when he knows it to be wrong. Expediency trumping truth.
Today we see Patriarch Kiril, blessing a war against other Christians as a holy war – similarly twisting events to bloster his own power rather than listening to the gospel message.
We see President Putin similarly struggling to control the whirlwind that he has unleashed, and that he does not understand, or want to understand.
Easter is a time of despair, and of hope. Death and resurrection. Destruction and renewal.
Let us pray this Easter, all the more, for peace in our world. The peace that we cannot cannot bring, but that only God can provide.

Sermon on Ukraine

This sermon was delivered the Sunday after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Gospel appointed in the lectionary was the transfiguration, which was what the sermon was therefore originally going to reference.

This week has been a week where writing a sermon in advance has felt like a futile activity, events have been changing so fast.
A week ago, I was reading the passage in the lectionary for this Sunday, and thinking about the transfiguration, and what I could say about it.
The week before that, I was talking to someone over dinner, an ex-politician, and he was advancing the view that the church (and I think he meant specifically the Church of England) shouldn’t get involved in politics.
I guess he would prefer if I did just give a sermon about the transfiguration, why Moses and Elijah were there, what Peter was thinking of when he offered to build huts for them, and all those sorts of things.
But the Church can’t not talk about politics, for several reasons.
The first is that the Church has been a political captive ever since the 4th century AD, when it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. As a result of that bargain, it became a part of the apparatus of government, and has been ever since. Sometimes the church becomes fatally compromised; or, as in the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state church becomes a direct tool of state power and oppression. In England, fortunately, these days are behind us; but it still feels two-faced when governments demand the church not get involved with politics whenever it dares to voice an independent point of view. Governments – and leaders – are not always right
The second is that politics – which means the affairs of the village, the poleis in Greek – has always been something that the Church has cared about. Christianity is not a metaphysical religion – it is not about personal enlightenment and one’s own journey. Christianity is about a people who have been chosen by God to make God’s world right again, not by individual effort, but by being a community of God, attempting to live in harmony with God and in the way that God always intended us to live. Politics is the management of the affairs of a community, and the Church is a community, within a community. We are not called to personal salvation, we are called to be a light to the world, so that all the world may be saved. That is a political matter.
The third is that Jesus was political, and if we are called to live our lives like Jesus, that means we must be political too. If Jesus were not political, the Romans would never have bothered to execute him. They didn’t care about Jewish accusations of blasphemy – they cared because he was a threat to their power.
But if we are called to be political, we need to be very careful how we are political. As Christians, we should not articulate a Christian political message because we are socialists or Marxists or communists or capitalists or any other -ists. We need to articulate a definitively Christian political view – one that is rooted in the scripture and in Christ as revealed in the scriptures and in the Holy Spirit.
To come back to my original sermon, what can the transfiguration tell us about the events in Ukraine? What might one, and just one, distinctively Christian political take on the week’s events look like?
A common first question might be – where is God in all of this?
And the answer, as always, is everywhere.
God is in the suffering and the pain, the dying and the mourning, just as God is in the joy and the happiness when things are going well.
We cannot blame God for the sufferings of Ukraine. He is responsible, in the sense that he is responsible for all of creation, but the suffering of Ukraine is inflicted by people on other people.
We cannot blame God for our faulty exercise of our own free will, for our arrogance and pride. It is God who will hold us responsible for those sins.
When we seek a theological response to a war, we should look at Jesus’ actions and words in the Gospels.
Jesus is unconcerned about the word of the law. Putin’s attempts to hide behind hollow legalism or interpretations would be met with the same scorn that Jesus addresses to the pharisees and scribes.
For Jesus, it is about intent – it is what is on the inside that matters, not what is on the outside.
We are all created in the image of God, and therefore when we oppress another person, or ourselves, we are oppressing God as well.
And God affirmed the closeness of this relationship when he chose to become man, and live amongst us.
Indeed, for much of his earthly ministry and life, Jesus appeared almost entirely human. Were it not for his actions it would be hard to see him as God. But he was God, and because of that, wherever he went the sick were healed, the excluded were welcomed back by him, the unclean were made clean.
But occasionally, he allowed his full glory to show though, and this account of the transfiguration is one of those times. Here, on the mountaintop, he allows Peter, James and John to behold his glory. This surely is what John is remembering when he writes in his gospel ‘he dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son’.
But this vision of glory is brief. For most of his ministry, both leading up to this point, and then from here on, as he turns his face to Jerusalem, and his degradation and slaughter at the hands of the authorities, he lives as one of us.
He suffers alongside us, and takes on our pain and sorrow. Everyone in Ukraine who suffers in agony or mourns or trembles in fear at what the future holds has Jesus alongside them, also suffering in agony, or mourning, or trembling in fear and begging God to save him from death.
The transfiguration sits at the centre of Jesus’ earthly ministry – a brief glimpse of the true glory of God, in the same way that Jesus’ earthly ministry sits at the centre of history – a brief glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.
We are shown the vision, and then, all too soon it is taken away from us. Why?
The kingdom of heaven is not within our power to bring in.
Why did not Jesus appear in glory to the powers of the world of that time – to Pilate, and Herod and Caesar himself?
Because those people, who thought they had power, and abused the power that they had, did not truly have power to change the world. The only power that they had was the power to abuse and denigrate and destroy. The same power that Putin now flaunts and abuses.
True power belongs to God, and we cannot exercise that power.
God calls us not to power, but to powerlessness. He calls us not to exercise power over others, but to refuse to do so. He calls us to live as examples, as lights to the world, but not in pride, but in humility.
All we can do as Christians is to say that the exercise of power to compel others is wrong, and to model an alternative way of living – a way of love and rightness in relation to each other and God. A way that we will fail in, because we are human, but will keep on trying in despite our failure, because we have the example of Jesus in front of us.
Jesus came to those who were open to hearing the voice of God. Not the powerful, or the self-righteous, but the weak and the humble. Not the clever, but the naïve.
The kingdom is not about us changing the world, but about God changing us. As Paul says, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.
There is a temptation to want to solve something like the war in Ukraine, but we cannot solve the problems of the world by force, only by example. Example is slow – it won’t stop suffering and pain and death right now.
You could say that his is a totally naïve view, and it is, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Situations like Ireland and South Africa show us that the best path to peace and righteousness is dialogue and forgiveness.
Not that I am saying that inaction is the only theological or Christian response. Jesus wasn’t a knee-jerk pacifist – he knew how broken the world was. But we need to realise that when we take action, we exert power over others, and when we exert power over others, we often hurt them, and we hurt God. Death and destruction are never the will of God. We may feel that we have to act, in order to prevent what are atrocious crimes against humanity, but we have to understand that there is peril in exercising power, and we have to prayerfully weigh up and accept our responsibility for that exercise of power in the eyes of God.

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

This week, we have reached the third Sunday of Advent. Traditionally, having considered the patriarchs and the prophets on the previous two Sundays, we now focus in on John the Baptist, as the herald of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Advent shares a liturgical colour with Lent, and is also intended as a time of reflection. Historically it was, like Lent, a time for fasting, as an aid to that reflection, which would have made the festival of Christmas that follows it all the more exciting. The twelve days of feasting and revelry that followed Christmas itself was the high-point of the medieval year – the necessary counterpoint to the cold, wet, dark days around it. The focus of Advent though is very different from Lent. Advent is a time of expectation. And that expectation is threefold.
We are joining with those who historically were living in expectation of the coming of their Messiah, an expectation that was met on that first Christmas millenia ago.
We are living in the anticipation of the final arrival of the Kingdom, when Jesus will come in the glory of the Father to renew all of creation. We don’t know when that day will be, but we do know that it will come and that on that day we will be renewed as well.
And finally we are looking forward to our Christmas present, and probably Christmas presents, building up to our festival of Christmas which binds those two appearances together, the past and the future.
There is a temptation to only look backwards at Christmas. The accoutrements of the season tend to reinforce that temptation. We surround ourselves with nativity scenes and familiar rituals. We exchange presents, hopefully in memory of St Nicholas, that belligerent champion of orthodoxy at the council of Nicea, rather than Santa Claus the chubby moral judge or Father Christmas, the pagan avatar of fertility and rebirth. Christmas is a time when we indulge in recreating the rituals and mystery of our childhood.
In itself, that is no bad thing. But if that is all we are doing, then we are missing half the message. John the Baptist is quite clear when he talks to his listeners about this. They cannot retreat into the past, and rely on their history. If they think that they are privileged because they are the heirs of God’s covenant then they may be sorely disappointed. God can raise up new children for Abraham out of the stones on the ground. God’s covenant is a two way street – both sides must be faithful to the promises that they have made.
Thus far, John has not said anything that many of his listeners would have found out of the ordinary. First century Judea was a hotbed of eschatological expectation. Since the return from exile in Babylon, the Jews had waited expectantly for the return from spiritual as well as physical exile – to feel once again the presence of God amongst them in the temple. The temple was rebuilt, more glorious than ever, but they still suffered under the rule of the gentile – first the Greeks, and now the Romans. Their own leaders had been corrupt and self-serving. The Pharisees preached that the way to return to God’s grace was to purify the whole nation, for everyone to follow the priestly codes so that everyone would be pure and clean in God’s eyes. They sought by this to prove to God that they were following their side of the covenants that God had made with their ancestors.
The Essenes on the other hand had retreated into the desert. They saw no hope in trying to purify the whole nation – instead they would become an Israel within Israel – a core of true believers that would be worthy of a renewed relationship with God. Fixing all of Israel, let alone all of creation was too tall an order.
John the Baptist probably came from this Essene tradition – we have very little description of their beliefs and customers – only a description by the historian Josephus and what we can glean from the Dead Sea Scrolls. But if he did, he certainly seems to be much more outwardly focussed than the mainstream Essenes. He goes among the people, calling them to repentance and baptising them with water, in preparation for one who will come to baptise them with fire and the Holy Spirit.
And he is practical as well. When he baptises tax collectors, he merely admonishes them not to over-collect their taxes to line their pockets. When soldiers ask him what they should do, he tells them not to extort money from people and falsely accuse them – soldiers of the time obviously often abused the power and authority they had over people.
He anticipates Jesus in this practically. He is not calling on these people – despised collaborators who the Pharisees and Essenes regarded as unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness to give up their professions, but he is asking them to do their work fairly, and to treat other people honourably. In a foretaste of the marvellous event the we will celebrate in two weeks, God does not distain the messy realties of creation, but seeks to engage with them, and work through them. Even tax collectors can do God’s work, he says, if they repent and amend their ways.
John’s message is that coming into God’s grace is not something that will happen just by looking backwards. The past is important. Being the children of Abraham is important, because God is faithful to his covenants. But the covenant wasn’t just there for Israel. God made that covenant so that they could be an example to the world. And they are not all being fruitful in that covenant, and those that are not fruitful and not fulfilling that covenant. They are falling back on the comfort of the past.
Fruitfulness in the present is important as well. God wants to work through us who are his creation, in his creation, for the purpose to finally fulfilling his creation. He does not need us, but he wants us, to be fruitful in the here and now. Not in an unreasonable manner. He is calling us to be fruitful in what we do in our everyday lives. Fruitful in our honesty, in our graciousness, in our compassion for others, in our love for others which is the reflection of God’s love for us.
But most importantly, John the Baptist also looks to the future. He is lucky in this, in a way. His eschaton, the fulfilment of the divine plan for creation, is close at hand. The coming of Jesus that he announces is soon fulfilled, although he himself does not live to see that Pentecost baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit that he describes.
We have a harder time in some ways. We also look forward to an eschaton, a revelation of God’s outworking in creation. We work towards that fulfilment of God’s promise, that creation will be remade anew and in the perfection that God always intended. We do not know when this will come. Like John, we will probably not live to see it in this life. But in looking forward to Christmas – in keeping this season of Advent as a season of expectation and preparation, we remind ourselves that God so loved his creation that he became part of it, and that he continues to be part of it with us, working alongside us, in everything we do, so that in everything we do, no matter how humble, or mundane, we are bearing witness to the glory of God through his creation.

Sermon on Mark 10:46

When I was studying to become a Licenced Lay Minister, one of the more interesting topics that we covered was Christian Ethics. Ethical dilemmas are always thought provoking, and ethics as a subject is always walking a fine line. As an academic subject, it is trying to generalise, and find principles; but the nature of ethical issues is almost always that they are intensely personal. Many ethicists might say that that is the whole point of ethics – to remove the emotion from emotional decisions, and provide a rational basis for making these decisions. But we were not supposed to be studying ethics, we were supposed to be studying Christian ethics.
So where do we start with Christian ethics? Normally, for any Christian subject, I would hope most people would say that we should start with the words and actions of Jesus, as recounted to us in the Gospels, and possibly also in the various epistles of the new testament. And yet, it seems to me, that we have a problem here, because Jesus was not an ethicist, at least not in academic terms.
That could be quite a provocative statement, but I think passages like the one today from Mark, show that, to me, Jesus was not approaching people and problems with a set of rigid rules. In Torah, the Jews had a complex set of legal rules that rabbis interpreted and made judgements according to. Jesus’ relationship with Torah seems to be have been ambiguous, like that of so many of the prophets who acted as his precursors. For them, and for Jesus, it was important not to forget the guiding principles behind Torah. God is a righteous and loving God, who created us as part of a good creation with agency that we could use for good or for evil. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus ‘What do you want me to do for you?’, he is affirming that original God given agency. Bartimaeus has a choice in what he can ask Jesus for. Bartimaeus asks to see again. For him it is physical sight that he is asking for – and he regains his sight. Jesus doesn’t claim credit – it is Bartimaeus’ faith which has made him well. Obviously, even if he is physically blind, spiritually he can see better than many of those around him.
The interchange could be seen as unnecessary. It must have been obvious what Bartimaeus’ main problem was, so why bother with talking to him.
I think for Jesus it is part of healing Bartimaeus to talk to him. Being blind, especially in those days, but even now, is a very disempowering experience. Talking to Bartimaeus, and giving him responsibility, is re-empowering him, even before he regains his sight. Sometimes Jesus tells people that their sins are forgiven. In Jewish theodicy, sin was often a reason for physical punishment. Many people then would have thought that their sinfulness was the root of their physical or mental problems. For them, telling them that their sins were forgiven might have been a powerful part of making them feel healed again. For Bartimaeus he doesn’t say this. A feeling of sinfulness might not have been at the root of Bartimaeus’ problems.
It seems to me that Jesus doesn’t have a fixed response or set of rules for situations like these. Instead he only seems to have one over-riding principle – what is best for this person, at this time, to make well their relationship with God and creation? Within that principle, the exact response to each person is tailored to their situation.
This goes beyond informing how we should approach ethical issues in a Christian manner. It ought to lie at the heart of our approach to justice as well. Politicians talk about making the punishment fit the crime, but for Jesus, it would be about making it fit the criminal instead. What will bring this person back into a right relationship with God. And in our increasingly pluralistic society, we need it to inform all of our relationships. It is too easy to label people, or lump them into groups. We need, like God, to love all of them as unique individuals.

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

One of Mark’s themes this morning is once again the incomprehension, even stupidity, of the disciples. Hope for us all here.
Why is this such a constant theme of the gospels?
Once again, God’s plan for creation’s salvation in the Messiah, conflicts sharply with what the disciples are expecting.
This is despite the words of so many of the prophets, that show the real concerns of God for Israel and the world.
This is not a conflict between faith and works, which so many protestant theologians have interpreted Paul and highlighting, and which our passage from James shows is not part of the New Testament, and recent scholarship shows was not part of the Ajewish theology of the times.
Instead There always seems to me to be a surface conflict at the heart of the Old Testament, between the vision of Israel in the books of history, and the vision in the books of prophecy.
Both start in the covenant given by Moses at Sinai.
But the narrative of the histories concentrates on the promised land, to the exclusion, it can sometimes seem of all else. The vision of Israel as a light to the nations is lost. As part of that vision, God wanted Israel to live to certain standards. There are admonishments not to take up the customs of other peoples. These become seen as mandates for ethnic cleaning and exclusivity. And it doesn’t work, because keeping oneself holy for God isn’t about having neighbours who are exactly the same as you, or not eating with people who are other. Israel does become as other nations are – they ask God for a king like other nations do, they build a temple, like other nations do, they start worshipping idols of wood and stone, like other nations do.
The notion of Israel was never as narrowly ethnic as it is sometimes popularly portrayed. Rehab the prostitute and the book of Ruth show us that anyone who is willing to enter into God’s covenant is part of Israel, and numerous other examples show us that those who despise God’s covenant are not part of Israel.
It is unfortunate that it is stories from these historical books of the bible that we most often seem to teach young children at Sunday school. It is because they seem simple narratives I think, but the message of these books is actually deeply hidden and quite complex, and at odds with the surface narrative.
This is the narrative that the disciples are locked into. Their narrative of universal salvation requires that Israel should be re-established as a sovereign power, ruled by the Messiah. Once that is done, then the God will use that power to impose the Kingdom of God onto the world. The end goal is correct – the role of humanity, Israel and the Messiah, is to bring creation back into the right path. But they have misunderstood the means, and their faith in their version of the narrative is so strong that even Jesus cannot change their minds.
We should be able to understand this, I think, in these days of fake news, and reinforcing echo-chambers.
To counterbalance this natural human tendency, God sent us people like Ruth, and Isaiah, and Amos, and Hosea, and all the rest of the prophets.
These stories and prophets can be harder to read. The language of prophecy can be obscure and feel over complex. We get confused even by the meaning of the word prophecy in English. People get hung up on whether these people are genuinely predicting the future, or whether it is all written after the event. This doesn’t actually matter. What prophecy is doing is interpreting the past, the present and the future.
Their message is one where Israel should be an example to humanity, but using what we would now call soft-power, rather than hard-power. They are reminding Israel that it needs to be true to the essence of the law. Righteousness, justice, compassion and charity are at the heart of God’s plan for the world, and at the heart of the law he gives Israel. Their role is to model this behaviour for the world.
The kingdom of God will not come from compulsion, but from persuasion. In the narrative of the disciples, the Messiah will redeem Israel, and Israel will redeem humanity. Jesus’ narrative is the same. What changes are the means, which will be self-sacrifice and humility.

Sermon on evil

Lectionary – Ephesians 6:10-20 & John 6:56-69.

For the last eighteen months people have been wishing that we could get back to normal. The news this week, no longer dominated by Covid, helps me remember that normal wasn’t really all that great, especially on a global scale.
The swift and total collapse of the Afghan government, admittedly no saints, to the Taliban the moment the US withdrew was, I think unexpected only in its rapidity. Many will observe that it is always the fate of foreign intervention in Afghanistan to fail, but that should not allow us to shut our eyes and ears to the humanitarian catastrophe that is almost certainly brewing in that impoverished country.
On the other side of the world, the earthquake in Haiti was a terrible disaster, but what is even more terrible is how the disaster is then amplified by the total collapse of the Haitian state.
The problem of suffering and evil in a world governed by an all-loving and all-powerful God is something men and women have struggled to answer for millennia. I doubt I will find an answer in the next ten minutes. But its insolubility does not mean it should be unexamined.
The extract we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians articulates one opinion on the problem.
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
For Paul, the rulers and the authorities are not enemies of blood and flesh, but are part of these cosmic powers of evil that he knows he is battling against.
The counter to this though is to ask why God created evil in the first place. Why did a benevolent God create an imperfect world. Doesn’t Genesis tell us that God looked upon his creation, and it was good?
The Boethian view of evil, after the writings of Boethius in the sixth century, views evil as internal rather than external. Evil comes from us, from our willingness to do wrong and sin. If God has given us free will, then he must necessarily give us the capacity to sin and do wrong. If we could not, then we would not truly have free will.
Paul, indeed, goes further than saying that we have the capacity to sin – for Paul, sin is inevitable. There is no way that we can ever live up to the perfection of God, and our only hope is in Christ’s faith, rather than our own efforts. Maybe this is veering too far in the other direction – do we truly have free will if there is no possibility of us making the right choices either? Or is that we are doomed to sin because of Adam’s sin? Have we all inherited a sinfulness from that first sin, as Augustine would argue?
For Paul, evil appears to be both internal and external – it is a result both of our own inability to resist, but is also urged upon us by external powers that seek to destroy us.
What do our present disasters show us on this?
Are they caused by the spiritual powers in the heavenly places?
Earthquakes and similar disasters are often referred to as acts of God. It is a lazy shorthand to say that we can’t blame any particular person for the disaster, but creates the implication that somehow God must be responsible. Why do we have earthquakes? They are a consequence of living on a tectonically active world, with a molten core of iron that generates the magnetic field that protects us from the ionising radiation of the life-giving sun. Earthquakes are, in a way, a requirement for life to exist on this planet at all. The ecological lesson of the last century is that we live in an ecosystem whose complexity we are only starting to understand – changing any part of it has unexpected consequences on the rest of the system.
No, in both cases, it seems to me, the true magnitude of the problem lies with us.
Not necessarily directly us, in this church here in Northwood today, but us in the sense of humanity in general. And therefore, yes, us in this church today, because we are all part of this humanity.
We were all created alike in God’s image. To all of us was given the stewardship of God’s creation. In the faithfulness of God through Christ we are all adopted into one family.
And, as this week’s news makes it abundantly clear, we are all fallen from the hope that God had in us.
Paul talks of the struggle being against the rulers and authorities, who are not of flesh and blood.
For us, this may seem strange or hyperbolic. We may dislike Tony Blair or Boris Johnson, but few would say that they were not flesh and blood, or seriously describe them as part of the cosmic powers of evil in the world.
But Paul was dealing with the Romans. The supposedly divine Emperor did view himself as a cosmic power, and for Paul, he was one of the spiritual forces of evil. Not to say that Paul accepted that the emperor was divine, but he saw him as a puppet or a manifestation of those eternal forces of evil. The emperor was a force of evil both by word, in his false claim to be ruler of the world, rather than Christ, and by deed, in the atrocities that the Romans perpetuated in the name of peace. Brutality, violence, corruption were the hallmarks of the Roman empire. This behaviour was ingrained – even a emperor who tried to do good was entrapped in a system that compelled evil. It was beyond mere individual conscience.
For those that are suffering most in the world, their rulers and authorities must seem similar to the Romans.
The Afghan state might not have crumbled quite so rapidly if it were not so corrupt, and riven by factionalism. Which is in no way to excuse the Taliban, who have deployed terror and violence to intimidate any who would dare to even try and stand against them.
Haiti as well, is suffering from not just an earthquake, but an earthquake exacerbated by the indifference, violence and corruption of those who have held power over the decades.
These are not acts of God, but acts of man. We cannot blame God for the horrors that we inflict upon each other. We chose to behave like this, and to try and blame God for it is just to continue to shirk our responsibility.
But God does not abandon us, even in the worst depths of our sin.
As Jesus says in our passage from John ‘Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father’ God, in his love, sent us his son, for us to beat and kill, and in his death to take upon himself the deserved punishment for the sins of all of us. This was an act of God.
Places like Afghanistan and Haiti show us why sin has consequences. God loves all and can forgive all, but to forgive sin without consequence is to perpetuate it. How can God look into the eyes of those who are dying in Haiti because of lack of food or water, because those in authority have stolen the aid given for them, and tell them that those in authority are forgiven and bear no consequence for their actions, when the consequence of their actions is plain to see?
To do would be to deny the pain of suffering of the victims, and God’s love for the victims is just as great as it is for the perpetrators – no more and no less. Sin requires judgement and punishment not because God is vindictive, but because God is loving.
And because God is loving, he takes this judgement and punishment upon himself, to stop our endless cycles of violence and retribution. On the cross, God is saying ‘if you must curse and hate and demand justice’ then do it to me. God is asking us to blame him, to stop us blaming each other.
This is how Jesus has conquered, and will continue to conquer death and sin. In his death, he can give us life – renewed life, free from the burdens of sin and punishment.
Paul knows this – that the battle has been won and that Christ has prevailed. Tom Wright imagines it brilliantly when he compares Paul to a junior officer on a foggy battlefield. He knows that the battle is won overall, but he can’t see the bigger picture and from where he is, it still seems to be going on. The enemy are still fighting and so he needs to keep fighting back.
It is the same for us. We are saved, and yet the fight goes on. There is still evil and suffering in the world. Despite Paul’s image of armour and weapons though, this is not a physical fight. As Paul says, we are proclaiming a Gospel of peace.
That is scant consolation for those being oppressed, tortured or murdered by the Taliban, I suspect. Or those dying of hunger or disease in Haiti watching aid being embezzled by the powerful.
But we are not called to compel others into the way of peace and justice. We are not commanded to convert the world at the point of a sword. We cannot force others into our faith in God.
Paul knows this. He talks of armour and weapons to strengthen ourselves, not to defeat others. Indeed, we cannot ultimately defeat the powers of evil, because they are already defeated. Paul, in Ephesus, as elsewhere, is building a community of the righteous. Not the self-righteous, not the holier than though. But a community of those who are dedicating themselves to a Gospel of peace. Those who, in the Spirit are attempting to make the right choices. To be a beacon and to show people that there is a better way to live. Not perfect, by any means. But people who are trying to live in a better way. A Christian community is not a matter of quantity, but quality. We hear a lot about numerical growth of the church, or lack of it these days, but in our Gospel reading we see Jesus unconcerned about his disciples leaving him. It almost feels like he is encouraging it. It is about having the right people around him, not as many people as possible.
We cannot solve problems like Haiti or Afghanistan. Not directly. To even try is to enmesh ourselves in that cycle of power and abuse. What we can do best is to show the world that there is a better way of living – a way not of mastery, but of servanthood, not of taking but of giving, not of hating, but of loving.

The metaphor is apt for this passage in Ephesians, but we should not be distracted by the military metaphor. Paul himself says that we are to proclaim the gospel of peace, despite our warlike apparel.
The gospel of peace is not an easy idea, especially for those who are suffering.
Jesus’s disciples did not find his teachings easy. They were looking for physical freedom now, a kingdom of their own, the oppressors to be overthrown and brought low. That is not what Jesus was offering them, not because the Romans could not be overthrown, but because that wouldn’t solve the problem of sin. Israel had been free before. It had been a nation under God’s rule, but had rebelled against that freedom – using it to indulge in idolatry. Freedom had bred pride and rebellion, rather than justice and peace. The prophets had warned them, but they had rushed headlong into destruction and exile. The freedom of choice given to Adam and to Israel had had the same consequences.

Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

On the face of it, this is a pretty straightforward exchange between Jesus and someone in the crowd.  The unnamed person in the crowd appeals to Jesus as a rabbi – the law is pretty straightforward and all he wants is a ruling in accordance with the law.

Jesus’ response is interesting on several levels though.

First is his response question – yet another example of Jesus answering a question with another question.

‘Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’

This seems like a strange response.

The answer, we know in the light of John’s later revelation, is God.  Jesus has indeed been appointed to be our judge. 

It is interesting that here he seems to be refusing that role.

Unlike some of his other interactions though, where people do recognise Jesus as the messiah, this questioner doesn’t respond in that manner, or possibly isn’t even given the chance to.

Unlike some of his questioners, who are at least heading in the right direction – like the rich young man who wants to know how to get into the kingdom of heaven, and is unable to because there are earthly things that he holds too dear – Jesus discerns that this person isn’t even interested in living his life in the right way.  ‘Beware! Don’t be greedy…’ He says.

For ancient societies like Israel, especially predominantly agrarian ones, and that was most of them, wealth was land, and land was wealth.  And in order to use the land efficiently, it would stay in the common ownership of the family unit.  So, not a ‘nuclear’ family like we are used to, but an extended family, 4 or even 5 generations living under the same roof.  And this was a very sensible idea.  Because this would give you the capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of fortune – one working adult hurting themselves wouldn’t mean starvation for their dependents.  This was your safety net; your social security.

The Pentateuch is full of laws designed to uphold this extended family unit, reaching up to the law of Jubilee – the sabbath year of sabbath years, when every 50 years, debts were forgiven, slaves were released and land was returned to its original owners.  Every generation, there was a chance to begin afresh, no matter how things had gone for the previous generations.

And yet this questioner is seeking to break up this system.  He is asking Jesus to rule on splitting his inheritance with his brother.  He no longer wants to be part of this extended family unit – Like the Prodigal Son, he wants to strike out on his own.

Now it’s possible that he had had a major falling out with his brother – brothers can be pretty insufferable at times, certainly in my experience.  And I’m hopeful that when the Kingdom of Heaven fully arrives, then they won’t be insufferable, or at least not nearly so much.

But in the meantime, this is what we have to put up with in God’s world.  God made us to live in community, not alone.  In community with God certainly, but also in community with each other, and often we see God most clearly when we see him in each other.

This is why Jesus responds with the parable of the rich man who pulls down his barns in order to build larger ones to store all his abundance.

On one level, Jesus’ audience may have thought that the rich man deserved it – Proverbs tells them that the good will prosper, and the wicked will suffer.  So those that prosper are obviously blessed.

But Jesus tells them this is not so.  God calls this man a fool, because he is storing up earthly goods against a future that doesn’t exist for him.  People prosper who are not good – Israel’s theology and understanding of God have moved on and become deeper, and they understand now that it is not just about rewards in this life, but also rendering an account of oneself to God after that as well.

So this man isn’t thinking about his eternal soul – he is only thinking about this life and a future that doesn’t exist for him.  Specifically for him.

And this is the critical thing about this I think – the rich man is storing up goods for himself – not for his community.  Like the man who is asking the question, he is thinking only of himself – not of God, and certainly not of others, the community around him, the members of his family and his tribe.

And this is a surprisingly easy trap to fall into.  Obviously it is easy on a superficial level, with worldly goods.  I’m sure many of us have an abundance of ‘stuff’, material goods that we may or may not need for the future – stuff that will be worthless to us if an account were to be demanded of us this very day. 

But at the same time, we know this.  At the level of material possessions, we know that our wealth will be of little account when we stand before God.  What we have done with our wealth will be what counts.

Many people here are very generous with their money and time towards the church, and towards each other.  

We hear and understand the first level of Jesus’ parable.

But should we be looking deeper than that?

And yet at the same time, how many of us are procrastinating spiritually?  How many of us are echoing Saint Augustine of Hippo’s famous adolescent appeal – ‘God make me good, but not just yet’. 

I’m not suggesting anyone here is quite living the life of the young St Augustine, but often God is looking for more from us that we are necessarily giving. 

God is always asking for a deeper commitment, the sort of commitment that you think is heading in one direction, but can actually lead you somewhere completely different.

Might we be like the rich man? Storing up our gifts for ourselves? 

When in the 16th Century, Martin Luther read his Bible with fresh eyes, what stood out for him was Paul’s emphasis on salvation through faith.  Luther was quite an unusual character and very much a product of his time, and his theology was very much driven by his personality and how he saw those times.

There is no doubt that the abuses and excesses that he saw in the Roman church at the time were in need of correction.  And he draws our attention to some very challenging passages in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that chimed with his own feelings of complete failure in any attempt to follow the rules.  Like Paul in Romans, he found the Law to be a death trap.

And the product of this, his insistence on salvation by faith in Jesus, is undoubtedly theologically and spiritually liberating.

And yet, but turning so decisively against works as a means of salvation, there has been a risk that we have jettisoned too much in the other direction, thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

It is all too easy, and it is a trap that many protestant churches have fallen into, to see salvation not only as the be-all and end-all, but also as a purely personal thing – a matter between us as individuals, and God.  We are saved individually by our own faith, and by our faith alone. 

Like the rich man, our souls can produce abundant salvation, so much so that we have no place to store it all.  We are right with God; we are saved by our own faith in Jesus.  Surely this is what is critical – our justification before God.

And yet like the rich man, maybe we too are fools if we think like this; as individuals concerned only about our own salvation.

For what Jesus demands of us is faith, that is true, but the word that the New Testament writers use has many more meanings than the simple English word faith has.  The word that is used, pistis, is more normally used of the relationship between ruler and ruled.

It occurs in the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha in this sense, where the Jewish rulers are required to have pistis in their Greek overlords.  Pistis here is faith, allegiance, trust.  But importantly, it is something that is not just a way of thinking – it is something that you live out in your life – you are required to demonstrate your pistis, your faith and allegiance in your actions as well.  If your overlord was attacked, it wasn’t enough to believe in him in your heart – you had to raise your troops and march out in support of him.

So maybe when Jesus says to people that their faith has saved them, it is not just their belief, but also their action that has been motivated by that faith that has saved them.  They have believed and acted. 

This is not salvation by works – it is not calculating how many years in purgatory each prayer will save us, but it is seeing that belief and action cannot be divided when we truly have allegiance to Christ.  We too must gather our forces and march out in support of our Lord.

Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German Lutheran theologian murdered by the Nazis in 1945, talked in one of his most famous books of ‘cheap grace’.  ‘infinite and boundless grace without price; grace without cost!’  He felt that people were asserting their faith privately, assured of their own salvation, while not challenging the spirit of the times they were living in.  He was convinced that religion could not be a purely personal thing – to be a Christian, you had to take a position on the social and political questions of the day.  For him, your faith, your allegiance to Christ compelled it. 

It is one of the key tenets of the modern world that religion is a private and personal affair, that should not interfere with public affairs, but Bonhoffer saw clearly that it is not possible to truly have faith in Christ and ignore the world around us.

Jesus’ questioner is trying to live for his own satisfaction and on his own terms, rather than as part of a family or community.  He is not confronting the issues and dealing with them, but trying to solve them by dividing the family – not building relationships, but breaking them.  And when we break our relationships with other people, we are breaking our relationships with God as well.

Unlike Jesus’ questioner, and unlike the rich man, true faith in Christ means acknowledging him as King and showing our allegiance to him in our actions, playing our part in his Kingdom – a kingdom of all the world, not just one small corner of it. Amen

Sermon on John 6:51-58

A couple of people have asked me for a transcript of the sermon I preached yesterday on John 6:51-58, so here it is:

The Bible talks about bread a lot. It’s a very potent image. In those times bread was truly the staple of life.
For most people it was probably three-quarters of their diet, supplemented by seasonal vegetables or pulses, and enlivened by the odd bit of fish or, on festive occasions, some meat.
So when Jesus talks about bread, he is using a metaphor that they can completely relate to. For them, far more than for us, bread is life.
For me, bread is a comfort food – stable, traditional. I’m just old enough that it raises the image of a delivery boy struggling up a cobbled hill to the sound of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
For his audience, Jesus reminds them of the key event in their history – the exodus from Egypt. When they were wandering in the wilderness, God gave them manna to eat – bread from heaven.
Manna is what God gave them in the wilderness, before they came to the promised land, during the forty years that they spent purifying themselves and becoming worthy to cross the River Jordan.
Just as their forefathers were given bread by God in the wilderness before they reached the promised land, now, again He is giving them bread from heaven in the person of Jesus, because once again they are in the wilderness searching for the promised land, as are we.
We too are still in the wilderness, still on our way to the promised land, being purified before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
In one respect, we have crossed the river Jordan, at our baptism, and we are part of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom as Jesus described it is still yet to come.
In the Gospels we get a glimpse of that Kingdom in the person of Jesus.
Wherever he goes, the Kingdom surrounds him. Wherever he is, the sick are healed, the marginalised are included, the unworthy are made worthy, and the dead come back to life.
We are given a glimpse of that kingdom in the Gospels, but rather than embracing it, we turn against it.
Jesus dies on the cross, and it seems like the kingdom is no more.
We are still in the wilderness, searching for the promised land.
But our prayers are answered. Jesus rises from the tomb, and the glimpse of the kingdom is restored.
It surrounds the disciples too now, and it becomes the role of the church, and all of us, to be that glimpse of the kingdom.
We are still in the wilderness, but we have the bread from Heaven, Jesus, that enables us to survive through the wilderness to reach the promised land.
So we gather here, week after week, as the Church, to partake of that bread from Heaven, in word and sacrament. This week, especially, serves to remind us what an incredible gift the eucharist is. Sometimes you have to lose something to truly value it.
John is notably different in his account of Jesus from the other three Gospels in many ways, and especially in his description of the Last Supper.
John places Jesus’ command to eat and drink his flesh and blood to this passage, and gives it a different, yet complimentary, theological spin.
In the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus tells them ‘do this in remembrance of me’.
The eucharist is there to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice for us upon the cross.
John moves the description of the eucharist from the closed, personal space of Jesus with his trusted disciples to here, in front of a great and querulous crowd.
And John emphasises Jesus describing this as the route to eternal life.
Here, the bread that God gave them in the wilderness is a metaphor for the Law, given to them by God at Mount Sinai.
But Jesus is saying that the Law will not save them. They can only be saved and given eternal life by Jesus, the true bread from Heaven.
And when Jesus tells them this, he is challenging them both directly and indirectly.
It might have taken his listeners a while to work out that when he talks about the bread they were given in the wilderness, he is also talking about the Law, but the language he uses is directly challenging them.
In Jewish dietary law, blood is strictly forbidden. Asking people to drink blood is offending their deepest taboos. Not for them black pudding and rare steak. In Leviticus God makes it quite clear that blood is life, and that all life belongs to God.
Even if they take his words metaphorically, the idea of eating your God’s flesh and drinking his blood would have been redolent to them of the idolatrous Greek and Egyptian mystery cults that were so popular at the time.
This is not Jesus asking them to accept him as part of the evolution of Jewish history and religious experience.
This is Jesus asking them to make a radical break with their past and think anew on what living the way that God wants really means.
Even his disciples find it hard to understand and accept what he is saying here.
Oftentimes Jesus will answer a question with another question, getting the questioner to thing themselves about what God is asking of them, rather than just feeding them a stock answer.
Here he gives an answer, but even that just creates more questions, because the answer isn’t what they are expecting.
It is notable that Jesus very rarely lays down general laws.
When confronted with situations where a moral or ethical judgement is called for, Jesus does exactly that; he judges.
He weighs up the situation in the light of the people and events involved, and then applies the justice and love of God to decide what resolution is best for the people involved.
Not necessarily what is best for them in the short term, or individually, but what is best for everyone in the long term, so that they can all live the sort of lives that God wants them to lead.
The Law is made for man, not man for the Law. God gave them the Law in the desert as a staff to help them, not a chain to bind them.
They are coming out of generations of slavery in Egypt, where their decisions were all made for them. At the bottom of society, they would have seen rules as a way for the powerful to abuse and exploit the weak.
The response to this is not anarchy though, and, the Law is given to them by a loving God as a guidance, to help them rediscover their freedom in a responsible manner.
It is not perfect, because they are not perfect – it is tailored for them and their needs.
Where they have then gone wrong is to idolise the Law, to raise it up on a pedestal and make it their sole guidance.
God tries to help them see the error of their ways – he sends prophets to show them that God is not about rules and checkboxes, but is instead about love and justice.
And finally he sends his Son, Jesus, the living law, the bread from Heaven that will bring eternal life.
And Jesus tells us that the Law cannot be something external to us – a set of rules written down in a book somewhere that we mark ourselves against day by day.
The true Law, the Living Law that gives us eternal life, needs to be internal to us.
We understand this law by consuming the Logos, the Word of God made flesh, by taking that Word and bringing it into ourselves.
When we bring it into ourselves, we need to look at every decision we make, every action we take, and ask ourselves whether we are following the Law, the Living Law, not just a bunch of rules.
If we do this thing, are we fulfilling God’s purpose in the world when we do it?
Are we expressing God’s love for all the world?
Are we loving our neighbour as ourselves?
Keeping to a set of rules is easy, because the rules are all written down, and hard, because there are so many of them, and they often fly in the face of our sense of natural justice.
Keeping to the Living Law is hard, because we have to think for ourselves, be constantly be thinking deeply about how we act and the impact it has on ourselves, on others and on God, but also easy, because deep down, we know that following the Living Law is our true desire, and our true wish, because ultimately it will bring us closer to God.
This then is the bread from Heaven that Jesus offers us when we let him into us.