The PULPIT

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No Future: Why There Is No Such Thing As Predestination

It would not bother me in the slightest if God turned out to be less powerful than is routinely claimed within the Church's liturgy and doctrine. In fact, I would delight in it as it would emphasise the personhood of God. That God is capable of doing the impossible seems illogical to me. Surely if God can do something then it is a possibility. Therefore, God can only do that which is possible. Acceptance of this leads to two choices. Either anything that God can imagine doing is possible for God or only those things that can be done according to "the rules" are possible for God. Both options allow for an all-powerful God (being able to do everything that is possible is the only thing requisite for all-powerfulness) but the possible nature of that which exists is potentially very different depending on which of the two is true. For example, a god who could do whatever can be imagined by that god could build a planet out of ice cream and have it orbiting its star, without melting, at a distance of just one hundred miles. However, a god who has to abide by the rules of creation could not do this because, within nature as it is, such a planet could not be made in the first place (interplanetary gas and dust are not dairy products) and it would most certainly melt if it was placed so close to such a massive heat source.

Personally, I hope that the latter of the two gods is the real God. It is more logical and it would help answer such difficult theological questions as "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people." To put it simply, God does not stop the earthquake because God cannot stop the earthquake. This would not be because of any lack of power on God's part but because it is not possible, according to "the rules," to stop an earthquake and God cannot do the impossible because if God did it would not be impossible. I love the idea that the Goldilocks principle that states that for a planet to be inhabitable it has to be in the "just right" location also has a theological reality. That, for life on earth to be as it is, it required God to create the universe dependent on physical laws that make that life, our life, possible. Earthquakes are usually caused by shifting tectonic plates and the movement of the earth's crust over the molten core of our planet is one of the most important contributors to the earth being "just right" for complex lifeforms to exist.

If God is only capable of being able to do that which it is possible to do due to the very nature of things we would be able to get rid of all the predestination nonsense from our theologies. Time travel may or may not be possible. However, most physicists who believe it might be do not believe it is possible to travel forwards in time because the future does not yet exist. There is no future to travel to so it is impossible to travel into it. You cannot eat a loaf of bread until it has been baked. God cannot do the impossible (because if God did it would not be impossible) so God cannot travel into the future, so God cannot see into the future. God may be able to predict what is going to happen in the future very precisely because of an awareness of all that has happened in the past and is happening in the present, but that is not the same as knowing exactly what will happen in the future. God has created far too complicated and unpredictable (see quantum physics) universe for such prescience to be believable. Even the claim that God lives outside of time does not alter the situation as time is only that which has happened and what is happening. There is no future time to live outside of as it does not exist.

If I am correct what would it all mean for us?

For a start it returns our free will to us which has recently been under sustained attack from philosophers and neurologists. Secondly, it makes us responsible for our futures. Thirdly it let's God off the hook as God is not, even academically, guilty of any calamity we may face in life (or, for that matter, any incident of good fortune we may experience). Fourthly, and this I find the most exciting, it introduces jeopardy into God's economy. If God cannot see into the future, because the future does not exist, then God did not know that Jesus would go through with the sacrifice that would save humankind and God did not know that Jesus would successfully be raised from the dead. There is a possibility that God can lose a "battle."

I do not worship God because of what God can do but because of what God has done. That God took such a massive risk to save humankind makes God far more worthy of thanks and praise than if God just did a mundane thing without there being any potential cost involved.

Thanks be to the God of the possible!

The Church Of England And Mental Illness

Today the prime minister of Britain, Theresa May, pledged an overhaul of mental health facilities. The NHS will be expected to make access to mental health services easier and quicker. The prime minister wants to tackle the "hidden injustice" and stigma of mental illness" and transform" attitudes to mental health problems. To bring this about every secondary school will be offered mental health first aid training. Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, have been appointed to carry out a review on improving support in the workplace and employers and organisations will be given additional training in supporting staff who need to take time off.

It would be a truly liberating thing if employers would stop discriminating against those who are suffering, or have suffered, from mental health problems. It would be valuable witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Kingdom of God if the Church of England, as an employer, was to lead by example. However, I strongly suspect that even if the bishops pay lip service to reform, in private they will continue to take advantage of the Church's exemption from much employment legislation to discriminate against the church's poorly employees even to the point of summary dismissal of the mentally ill without due process.

I can, with all honesty, state that the Church of England bishops are capable of such appalling bigotry and malpractice because I am a victim of their fear filled abuse of the mentally ill within their care.

Here is my story.

I was ordained into the diaconate of the Church of England in the diocese of Newcastle back in 1995. A year later I was ordained into the priesthood. My first curacy was in the parish of Newsham, near Blythe in Northumberland. Although I did not know it when I accepted the post, the vicar, Richard Pringle, was a bully of a man, very unpredictable in his behaviour. He would shout at me in front of the congregation and would physically push me around during services. However, it was his inappropriate behaviour around children and young people that was most disturbing. He would take every opportunity to touch and hug them and would even encourage them to sit on his lap. He had no friends his own age (early forties) and hung around the clubs in town that were frequented by teenagers. His conversations with children and young people could be very suggestive. Once, at coffee after the Sunday morning service, a boy and a girl (aged about fourteen I would guess) were sitting on the front of the stage in the hall, giggling and pushing into each other gently with their shoulders (harmless flirtation). Pringle walked up to them and said out loud, "If anyone is going to give (girl's name) a medical examination, it is going to be me."

That made me shudder but things were to get worse. A mother from the congregation approached me and informed me that Pringle had taken her teenage son to a sauna and photographed him in the nude.

The diocese was in interregnum at the time so I immediately reported the incident to the archdeacon, Peter Elliott. He told me that he would have a word with Pringle. I do not know if he did but one thing is for certain, as I found out later, nobody else was informed and no action was taken. I should have known that Elliott would not be interested enough in the situation to do anything about it because when I mentioned to him during the interview that Pringle always holidayed in places notable for providing easy sexual access to young males he replied, "I don't care what Richard Pringle gets up to as long as he doesn't do anything wrong on my patch."

Although I was removed from the parish and placed with a vicar, Michael Webb, who was as different from Richard Pringle as you could possibly get and who was an excellent training incumbent, my bad experience as Pringle's curate led to me experiencing bouts of severe, clinical depression. I struggled on and even managed to gain a first incumbency as priest in charge of a couple of small parishes on the Northumberland coast. Unfortunately, not long after taking up the post I became so poorly with depression and anxiety that I needed to be hospitalised on various occasions for periods of up to three months. I was off work for over a year.

During the two years of my illness the new bishop, Martin Wharton, came to visit me once and none of my colleagues stayed in touch with me. It was at this point that I started to realise that I would be a social leper because of my illness for the rest of my life.

I later asked Wharton why he had only visited me the once and he replied, "You are not my only priest, Jonathan."

With the help of an occupational therapist I worked hard on my recovery (only those who have suffered from severe depression will know how painful and arduous dragging oneself out of the depths of the illness can be) and eventually I was ready to return to work. The bishop sent Richard Langley, the archdeacon of Lindisfarne, to see me. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I would like to return to work, looking after just one of the two parishes to begin with, with the intention of being responsible for both parishes in the near future. Langley told me that would not be possible and that the bishop wanted me to retire. If the Church had not been exempt from employment law (an exemption granted to them by the government to allow them to continue to discriminate against women and gay people) the diocese would have had to, by law, agree to my request for a phased return to work.

Upset at this I arranged to see Martin Wharton at his office. He reiterated the archdeacon's demands stating that he did not believe a priest who had suffered from mental health problems should ever be allowed to be a parish priest. I argued with him and told him that he had a duty of Christian care but he was far more worried about how much it would cost to keep me employed than he was about my welfare. He told me he would think about it.

A couple of weeks later I received a letter from his office stating that I would be demoted to assistant curate and placed in the parish of St. Francis, High Heaton, Newcastle. Furthermore, I had to report regularly to work consultants and counsellors who were appointed by Wharton and to whom they had to report (there was absolutely no confidentiality). I also had to undergo annual work assessments that were far more intrusive and aggressive than those every other priest had to endure (they even included a lay Christian, who just happened to be a doctor appointed by Wharton). Worst of all I was placed on a two year contract with the possibility of being dismissed immediately on the bishop's whim.

I got on with my job and, because the incumbent was reluctant to visit people or go into hospitals (something I feel honoured to do), I was quite well liked by the congregation (with the exception of some of the vicar's special friends). At the end of the two years I had to fight for my job again as Wharton was still determined to get me off the books. My contract was extended for a further two years, same draconian conditions.

At the end of this second period of employment I received a letter from Wharton stating that my contract would not be extended. I wrote back saying that it was against the law of the land to sack an employee who was officially disabled for being disabled. Wharton obviously did not believe that I was disabled as he then sent me to a private psychiatrist to be assessed. I do not know what Wharton expected but I guess it was not what happened. The psychiatrist reported back that I was officially disabled. He also stated that I was perfectly capable of being a parish priest. In fact, he said that although I was slightly "eccentric" I would make an excellent parish priest (I still have a copy of his report should my honesty on this matter ever be challenged). The bishop then deigned to give me a one year contract.

I worked for a further three years, the last couple of years being without any contract whatsoever, although I still received my wages at the end of each month. Eventually, the vicar of Saint Francis' decided to move on and Wharton used this as an opportunity to get rid of me for good.

I would point out that during the eight years that I was at the church of Saint Francis I did not have a single day off because of any illness, mental or physical.

When a vicar leaves his post and the parish moves into a interregnum it is the local area dean who becomes responsible for the services of the parish. In our case the area dean, Kevin Hunt, passed the responsibility for the services to the two lay readers and myself. Now, I am not one for being in charge and I prefer to work collaboratively. However, I do like the services I preside at to be well put together and coherent. So, I immediately went to the choir master and organist and asked them to join with me to choose the hymns each week. The following week they came back to me and told me that they alone would choose the hymns (which is never their responsibility, I was, in fact, being far more inclusive than I had to be, mainly because I like working with others rather than on my own). When I replied that this would not be possible the organist, the choir master and choir went on strike.

The bishop told me that I had to leave the sorting out of the situation to the churchwardens. The archdeacon, Geoff Miller, told me I was not to discuss the matter with anyone. I completely obeyed both these directions even though no such rules applied to the organist or choir. A rumour started, which Miller chose to believe even after I had told him it was not true, that I had shouted at the organist. But neither of us had exchanged cross words with each other. Kevin Hunt came to a parish meeting but he refused to say that the choir was in the wrong as far as church law was concerned and that he had handed responsibility for the content of the services to the lay readers and myself. It was a nightmare. Nobody would stand up for me except the lay readers. It was as if the whole thing had been contrived to bring me down and it succeeded in doing just that. Bishop Martin Wharton fired me and evicted my wife and myself from my clergy house, our only home. In May 2010 I presided at my last holy communion at Saint Francis' and I have not worked since.

I moved into Durham diocese hoping for a fresh start but nobody will help me. Justin Welby was both insulting and aggressive towards me once he had spoken to Bishop Wharton (Welby had been quite supportive up until that point) and the new bishop won't speak to me and did not respond to my request to meet him. The archdeacons refuse to answer my emails or acknowledge job applications that I put in. The area dean of the church in Durham that I was worshipping at refused to allow me to join the chapter. A person who I thought was a friend chose preferment to remaining my friend (that hurt). Kevin Hunt, who used to meet up with me for a drink once a month, made excuses not to see me gain when he was promoted to the post of residentiary canon of Newcastle Cathedral (that really hurt and led me to believe that all those years he was just spying on me for the bishop). I have been almost completely cut off from the diocese. An email to the new Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman, telling her of my ordeal under her predecessor and asking for help, elicited no response. The bishop of Glasgow, Gregor Duncan, wrote to me after I had driven all the way to his city to ask him for help, to tell me I would not be welcome in his diocese because I would "bring too much baggage with me." No colleague, bar Jenny Lancaster, a female priests from the church I worked in under the vicar, Michael Webb, have kept in touch with me. No bishop or archdeacon in the Church of England, although many know of me, my situation and my requests for assistance, have come forward with offers of help.

Of course, I am not the only priest who has been "disappeared" by his diocesan bishop following a bout of mental illness. I know of many myself. But I am one of the few who have stood up to the abuse and shouted about it publicly. My blog, "Of Course, I Could Be Wrong..." (which I started up after five years of enduring Martin Wharton's prejudice) shouted very loudly about the the Church of England's discrimination against the disabled, gays, women and anybody else who are not the "right sort of people." I am sure that my style of open blogging has made me even more unpopular within the Church. On the other hand my blogging helped me remain relatively sane and introduced me to many people (albeit mostly living on the other side of the world) who do do as Jesus would do rather than as the CEO of a banking concern would do. I have somehow managed to maintain a priestly ministry on the internet without the support of the church which ordained me.

Basically, I appear to be an embarrassment because I am a person who has mental health problems. Certainly, I have not received anything like the care, accommodation and understanding that I would have been legally entitled to if I had been working for a secular employer, let alone the care Theresa May is now asking employers to provide for their mentally ill staff. As I said at the beginning, it would seem extremely unlikely that the Church of England will get on board our prime minister's social justice express, especially in respect of troublesome, uncomfortable-making minorities such as the mentally ill.

The Great Saint Laika Advent Appeal 2016

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Yes, folks!

It's that time of year again.

The time of year when the big bills start arriving at Saint Laika's HQ at exactly the same time that I have to find the money for Mrs MP's Christmas present and a little bit of festive cheer. For example, I have just paid out over seventy pounds for web hosting so that Saint Laika's can continue for another year.

The donations I receive from the friends of Saint Laika's are my only source of income and the work I do at Saint Laika's is my main priestly vocation. In order to keep my head above water and my ministry available to all free of charge I have to run two appeals every year and this, dear people, is the second of them.

Please consider making a donation this year, no matter what amount. I am hoping to raise a thousand pounds or more. We have never reached our target before. Maybe, as this has been a year of surprises, this time we will.

Please click on the PayPal widget below to make your donation.

You do not need your own PayPal account in order to donate.

Thank you.





God loves you. I love you.

This cute puppy loves you.

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All Saints’ Day Sermon 2016

Oscar Romero was born in a small village in El Salvador. He became a priest and for many years lived a quiet and unassuming life as a pastor to his people. He was certainly not known for rocking the boat and so when the job of archbishop came up in his country, a land that was in a constant state of civil war and which was ruled by military despots, he was chosen to fill that post. The government believed they had found a man who would be little more than a puppet of their corrupt regime.

However, Archbishop Romero immediately began to speak out against the institutionalised violence in his country and in his sermons he supported the demands of the poor for economic and social justice. This upset the government who threatened him with assassination but he refused to be silenced and continued to preach Christ’s message of good news for the poor. On the twenty fourth of March, 1980, whilst presiding at Mass he was shot dead by a gunman.

In 1980, an uprising of the native people caused the overthrow of the government of the West African country of Liberia. There followed a time of uncertainty, civil unrest, and armed struggle between rival factions.

In 1989 the government of Samuel Doe, which had been in power since the coup in 1980, fell and Liberia was engaged in a civil war. One of the rebels was Charles Taylor, a warlord who led a brutal force of thugs and child soldiers, in a quest for power.

A small order of American nuns called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, had been working in Liberia since the 1970’s as missionaries and relief workers.

When the civil war erupted they continued in their ministry and were beloved for their willingness to provide relief and help to the poor and helpless people caught up in the civil war.

On the twentieth of October, 1992, five of the nuns ( Sister Barbara Muttra, Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, Sister Agnes Mueller, Sister Shirley Kolmer, and Sister Kathleen McGuire ) were brutally murdered by a group of Charles Taylor‘s soldiers.

These sisters had the opportunity to flee Liberia in 1990, but all of them believed that faithfulness to Christ demanded that they stay. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for their faithfulness.

When we think about saints and martyrs we tend to think about people who lived a long time ago. Saint Francis, for example, or the saints and apostles of the early Church.

However, as my two examples prove, martyrdom is still, in our own day, being demanded of Christians. Christians are being persecuted in many places in the world. We often hear reports of the killing of Christians in Pakistan, in Nigeria and in other countries.

When I was at college, one of my tutors was an Egyptian Coptic Christian. The Coptic Church in Egypt is constantly being persecuted by the Muslim majority in that land. My tutor, George, had been forced into exile because of his faith and when he visited his family in Egypt he feared for his very life.

One of my fellow students at college was from Pakistan. Often he would hear reports of Christians being killed or arrested in his homeland. He was stuck in a leafy suburb of Nottingham whilst his family was in danger back home.

I had friends who were Nigerian and Ugandan. Their future lives in the priesthood were going to be considerably more dangerous than mine.

For many Christians, persecution is a part of their daily walk with Christ.

Jesus promised us that being a follower of his would not be easy. He came, not to bring peace, but the sword. Don’t forget that Jesus was murdered because of his faith, he was the first martyr, and he was murdered because what he preached was dangerous. The Roman and the Jewish leaders would not have bothered with him if all he had said was “be nice to one another.”

No, he had to die because he attacked the status quo. He took sides with the poor and oppressed against the powerful, just as Oscar Romero and the nuns of Liberia were to do two thousand years later.

Of course, not all the saints that we commemorate today were martyrs. Many of them died peacefully in old age. Some were doyens of the spiritual life, some founded great religious institutions, some were writers or great philosophers, some gave up everything to work with the poor. Others became saints for just being pope or something in the same way senior civil servants and leading businessmen get knighthoods.

The list of official saints, although long, is, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg; it is merely representative. You see, the Christian world is full of saints, wherever you go you will come across them. They’re here in this church. We are the saints of God, or, at the very least, we are trainee saints. You see, we become saints when we sign up to the Christian faith and when we start to take what that really means, seriously.

A saint is somebody who lives the Christian life.

And what does that mean? Well today’s gospel reading, what we call the beatitudes, gives us examples of the different attributes of the saints.

As Christians we should be poor in spirit. That’s a strange phrase, at first you might think it means being lacking in spiritual depth. But it doesn’t mean that. The poor in spirit are those who bow humbly before God in total trust, who are willing to await everything at God’s hand. They have seen through the false promise of wealth. They do not crave riches or the things that riches can buy.

We should mourn. Not just when we are bereaved but also we should mourn for our world, governed as it is by the power of evil. We should mourn for the sins of the world and for our own sins.

We should be meek. Not meek in its modern sense. Not soft. The truly meek are, in the Bible, the considerate, the unassuming, the peaceable towards both God and their fellow human beings. They do not push their own plans to the detriment of God’s saving plan. Jesus is the model of the meek man who gives rest to others, the meek king who brings salvation through his own sufferings, the Son who through meekness gains all authority.

We should hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. We should live just lives. We should be fair to other people wherever they live. We shouldn’t just talk about justice we should act in ways that bring justice into the world. And we must be prepared to be ridiculed and shunned when we do stand up for justice. Speaking out against the rich and powerful is a dangerous occupation.

We should be merciful. For only by being merciful shall we receive mercy. We should not seek revenge. We should forgive other people their trespasses against us so that God can forgive our trespasses against him.

We should be pure in heart. It is no good being saintly on the outside if on the inside you are a seething mass of hatred and bitterness. Purity of heart is achieved by concentrating on God so that thoughts about God replace the bad thoughts we all have from time to time.

We should be peacemakers. The Hebrew word for peace, “shalom,” literally means, “wholeness.” We should be striving to heal both people and situations, making peace between people and other people and between people and God.

It sounds a bit scary that list. How can we achieve all that?

Don’t panic, if you read the beatitudes carefully you will notice that you need only need of the eight qualities to get into heaven. I’m hoping that having a little bit of each one will also get us into heaven.

We can achieve that.

God isn’t after perfection. If he is then he’s going to be very lonely come the last judgment.

Anyway saints are not necessarily saintly all their lives. I bet Saint Francis had his off days when he snapped at his brothers or let slip a choice Italian expletive.

You and me, sometimes we are good people and sometimes we are bad people. We are going to fail sometimes, just as the great saints failed sometimes. But there will be times, a lot of times, when we succeed.

I am not a holy person, not as the world defines it. Neither, I expect, are most of you. But we are faithful soldiers and servants of our Lord, and we do try hard to be the people God wants us to be. I believe, that in the end, that will be enough for the God that I love, and we will join with those super saints as they gather around God’s throne of glory.

Amazon Portal

If you live in the United States or the United Kingdom a really cool way to help finance my ministry is to buy Amazon products via my Amazon shop. It will cost you nothing extra and I will receive commission on every item you buy. It is not a very high percentage but it does add up quickly if a lot of my friends use the facility. I am told what items are bought but I am not told who buys them. So your secret vices will remain secret. 🙂

All you have to do is go to Amazon via one of the widgets below (use the top one for Amazon USA and use the bottom one for Amazon UK). Type the name of the product you are interested in (or just any old thing if you only want to browse). Then click on GO and you will be taken to the Amazon website. Then just proceed as you would if you had gone straight to Amazon via your browser.

Please add this page to your BOOKMARKS so you you can access it easily. I suggest you change its title to something shorter, such as AMAZON PORTAL or simply AMAZON.

Thank you, so much, for all your help. Without it there would be no Saint Laika's and I would not be able to pursue my vocation which is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ over the internet tubes. You really are lovely people.

Serving God Or Mammon

Luke, chapter sixteen, verses one to thirteen:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

"So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

"Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

"So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

"He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’

"He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

"Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’

"He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’

"He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

"And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

When I read today's gospel to prepare for this service I was immediately struck by the idea that Jesus might well have been talking about British politicians, especially those of high office such as prime ministers and chancellors of the Exchequer. Politicians from all the major parties, I would hasten to add, although, I must admit, a certain, particular globetrotting former prime minister did stick out in my mind as being most like the manager who ingratiated himself with influential people whilst he was in his post so that he could profit greatly from his connections after he had left it.

I do not think I am being particularly cynical in making this link. In fact, I think Jesus wanted his listeners to come to a similar conclusion. Of course, he was not referring specifically to English members of parliament, there was no such thing back in the first century A.D., but there were politicians within the systems of the day, both in secular and religious administrations, and there would have been, most definitely, officials, of all levels of authority, who used their positions to get in with the right people.

My second reaction to today's gospel was one of confusion. It appears that Jesus is recommending that his followers behave in a way that is immoral according to his own teaching. He seems to be telling people to play the system for all it is worth, even when this means being dishonest to the point of thievery. We know that Jesus does not approve of such corrupt activity. For example, he does not call tax-collectors sinners because they collect taxes but because they were renowned for skimming off the top, for charging people more than they owed and keeping the difference for themselves. Could Jesus really be telling his disciples that the unscrupulous ways of the world are also the ways of the kingdom of God?

No, that cannot be the case. Either this is a fiction that has been invented by somebody other than Jesus which has somehow ended up in the "Gospel of Luke" in error or we are not meant to take the words of Christ here on face value. Personally, I believe that it is the latter that is true.

We are always in danger of having so much reverence for the divine Jesus that we forget that it is absolutely crucial to our faith that Jesus was also the God who became human. This means that we are prone to read the Bible with Christ's voice in our head being very serious and proclamatory, like the voices of BBC newsreaders used to be back in the days of the Queen's English and appropriate behaviour. But Jesus was simply not like that. He was a human being who spoke just the same as the ordinary people he walked among, who used the same idioms of speech that they did, who was serious sometimes and flippant at other times like they were, who laughed and who cried just the same as everyone else.

Bearing this truth in mind let me suggest to you that Jesus is being sarcastic and satirical here, that he is using humour to lessen the offence of what he has to say so that his listeners listen to him and remember what he has to say to them.

I think that Jesus is using satire to have a dig at two groups of people. Firstly, rather than applauding their behaviour, Jesus is actually condemning the book fiddling, ingratiating officials. Their actions show clearly that they serve wealth, primarily their own and, as Jesus says at the very end of today's reading, "You cannot serve God and wealth." If you are not serving God then you are serving a false idol and that, as we all know, is a big "Do not do!" on the list of God's primary commandments.

Secondly and more specifically, Jesus is having a dig at his own followers. I believe Jesus is telling his disciples that not only are they persisting in the practice of the corrupt ways of the world but they are, in fact, no good at it. They are pathetic. They cannot even get being bad right so how on earth do they expect to be able to achieve the much more difficult goal of being good? At least the pocket-lining managers are proficient in their dishonesty. They, his disciples are just rubbish at everything and it is time that they either stop procrastinating and commit full time to his teaching or walk away and put their lot in with those who care only for this world and their prosperity within it.

You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth. It is God or Mammon, it cannot be both.

Now, as Shakespeare used to say, here is the rub and you all know what I am going to say.

Those of us here today who profess to be Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ so, ipso facto, when Jesus addresses his disciples back in the year 29 AD he is also addressing us now in the year 2016. To be brutally honest with ourselves I think we have to adit that the shoe fits better today then it did back then. I suggest that we are far more tempted by the wealth of the world today than Christ's disciples were during their lives for the simple reason that there is a lot more wealth around to tempt us. Even within our own lives we have seen an incredible growth in the number of things that are available for us to possess. When I was young there was far less available for me to absolutely must have than there is nowadays and I'm getting old and set in my ways. What it must be like for young people who are bombarded with advertisements for all the new technology day in day out I just cannot imagine.

Worse still, those who wish to sell us luxuries, have managed to persuade our societies that a person who does not have everything is a failure or a weirdo. This has led to the primary concern of most people becoming that of making money. Society places the accumulation of wealth above all else. Above happiness, above human rights, above a place to live for everybody, above fair pay for everybody, above justice, far above the love of neighbour. Our government is judged on its economic performance not its social or cultural achievements. We consider ourselves bad parents, failing parents, if we cannot afford to buy our children the latest must have gadget when they demand it of us.

The temptation to scratch and claw our way to more and more wealth, not caring too much, if at all, about the morality of how we achieve our ambitions, is very great nowadays. To make it easier for us to buy into the zeitgeist of our modern times those who would profit from it have pretty much persuaded those who are even slightly well off that there is no God so making the choice between God and wealth very easy indeed.

This means that the decision to become or remain a Christian is a tough one to make. Okay, it is easy enough to be a weekend Christian, fitting in with the ways of the world during the week, and then popping into church for a sing song and a cup of tea on Sunday morning. Easy, that is, if we can reconcile ourselves to the blatant hypocrisy of our lives. But if we believe that a real Christian is someone who at least tries their best to live their lives according to the teachings of Jesus Christ then we are going to find serving God in what is now the household of mammon very difficult indeed.

No wonder we are tempted to put off choosing which master to serve, to pretend, even, that choosing one or the other is not necessary.

But it is necessary. It is necessary for our very salvation and, beyond us, for the salvation of the generations that will follow us.

If we have truly and honestly decided to follow Jesus then it is time for us to stop being rubbish at being good and for us to step up to the mark. We need to be wise in the ways of the world only so that we can rise way, way above them. May the wisdom of God help us to do the right thing, follow the right path and, more than anything else, serve the right master.

That We May Turn From Our Wickedness And Live

Then Jesus drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

And the pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them."

And he spake this parable unto them, saying, "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, 'Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.' I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

"Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, 'Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.' Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."

I am no hater of change and I am more than happy to use whatever order of service the congregations I visit are used to. But the 1662, "Book of Common Prayer" has a special place in my heart. It has become a part of my very being in a way that no other form of worship has ever achieved. I am familiar with it and I have been for as long as I can remember. I am cosy with it. It's like slipping into my favourite armchair after being on my feet all day. The language is beautiful. It is poetic far beyond anything any committee of liturgists have ever come up with. But there is something else. It is my opinion that it teaches the Christian faith in a way that sticks in the mind far more effectively than any of the more modern books of church prayer.

One of my favourite sentences from the "Book of Common Prayer," a sentence that reflects very well the teaching of Jesus Christ in today's gospel reading, can be found at the beginning of the absolution pronounced after the general confession at evening prayer.

"Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."

Our God "DESIRETH not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."

I live with my wife and three border collies, Delphi, Quiz and Edric. I have shared my life with border collies since before I was six months old and I started training them for obedience competitions when I was just fourteen. To be honest, I am not a very competitive person and I rarely compete nowadays but I do take on the occasional judging appointment.

There seems to be two main ways that judges go about designing their course and assessing the dogs that come before them. Some, and I really hope I am in this category, design the course to get the best out of the dogs, allowing them to shine and then judging the dogs and their handlers based on what they get right. Other judges go for courses that are designed to trick the dog into making mistakes and they judge the competitors based very much on what they get wrong.

The second way is by far, the most common way. It seems to be the way of human nature. A high proportion of us have a tendency to look for what is wrong rather than what is right. Not only are we a glass half full people, the beer in the glass is not cold enough for us and it doesn't taste as nice as the one we had yesterday.

The way that some Christians go on you would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that God has set up the course of all our lives in a similar, negative way and that he is watching us hoping that we slip up so that he can note our mistakes down in his notebook and so separate the few winners from the many losers. That's the way the bad judges at dog shows go about their task and they do so because it is the easiest way. In fact, such judges want most of the dogs working in their class to get it wrong so that they only have a very few dogs left at the end of the day to choose the winner from.

God is a judge, but he is, most certainly, not of the same mind as such bad human judges. God will separate the wheat from the chaff but only after he has spent the growing season looking after the crop with such care that the harvest is as near to being one hundred percent wheat as possible. Human farmers take it for granted that they will lose some of their annual crop to misfortune of one kind or another but Farmer God does not. He cares for every single stem of wheat individually. God will not be satisfied unless, come harvest time all is safely gathered in.

God does not want us to die. God wants eternal life for every single one of us, even the most wicked of us.

He "desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live..."

In a dog obedience competition the handler and the dog get just one chance to get it right. At the end of the round they don't get to have another go because they didn't quite get it right the first time. However, in the "obedience" competition of our lives God does allow us to keep trying.

We are allowed to say to our judge, "Whoops, sorry, I got that wrong, can I try again?"

God will surely reply, "Of course, go ahead. In fact, let my son help you this time."

God is a perfectionist but he is a perfectionist in a good way. God's idea of perfection is not one where all the imperfect has been ejected and only the perfect remains. No. God's idea of perfection is one where nothing has been thrown out because everything has been made perfect.

God is totally inclined to inclusivity. God is committed to not losing one of us. If just one of us wanders off from his presence like the wayward sheep in today's gospel reading he will come and find us even if it takes him all the metaphorical day.

And we have all, like sheep, gone astray, probably many times during our life. And, outside of the parable, in the real world, it is not a story time shepherd who comes out to find us, but the very real, son of God, Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to lead us all to the safety of the fold that is the kingdom of God.

"John," chapter seventeen, verse twelve.

"While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."

So, like the woman who rejoiced with her friends when she found the coin she had lost let us rejoice with Jesus Christ who has found us, who has rescued us, who, even now, is leading us home.

The End Is Always Nigh

Jesus said to his disciples, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?

No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.

"You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

( Luke 12:49-56 )

The end is nigh.

The end is always nigh.

I expect that ever since human beings became intellectually aware of their own mortality they have lived with the gnawing dread that the end of the world is just around the corner. This is not magical thinking. It is not delusion. It is a logical conclusion to come to when faced with first hand experience of the fragility of our planet and the lives of those creatures who inhabit it.

In both the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus is reported as claiming that just before the end of the age, there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. I always think that is the most pathetic of prophesies, firstly because of its complete lack of specific locations and secondly because there are obviously going to be famines and earthquakes in various places because there always are famines and earthquakes in various places. There were in Christ's time and they are today. If we, living in the scientifically advanced twenty first century cannot come up with the will to stop famine and cannot stop earthquakes whether we want to or not, I think it's a pretty certain bet that at all times, somewhere in the world, there will be famine and that the crust of the earth will regularly tear itself apart as the continents drift around on the magma that is largely responsible for their being advanced life on our planet. As long as there is life there will be death. As long as there are beginnings there will be endings.

The man standing in the street holding a placard claiming that the end is nigh may well be a madman. But he is a madman who has his finger on the pulse of the universe's entropic existence. In the end, and there is always an end, he will be proved right.

There can also be found within the doctrines of the Christian religion a metaphysical logic to the suggestion that the world is always just about to end. We have been promised that after the end of this world God will bring into being a new world, that which we refer to as the Kingdom of God. This will be a good place to be and it will be where the resurrection of our bodies will take place. But, and this is where it gets complicated, we also believe that the Kingdom of God has already broken into the universe of the world we live in now. It came into our existence when the divine, otherworldly Word, became flesh and worldly. It continues to exist in our world because that which has been done, namely the resurrection of Christ, cannot be undone and, furthermore, because we are in Christ and Christ is in us, we are in the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is in us.

Therefore, if the Kingdom of God is both in the future and in the present then the end of the present time is in the future and also in the present.

That we live at all times within the end times is both good news and worrying news for those whose faith is Christ centred. It is good news because the forever Kingdom of God is imminent and it's a done deal. It is worrying news because its imminency means that we should really be living our lives on the basis that there isn't much time left.

Jesus and the early Christians believed that the Kingdom of God was not going to become a complete reality in an instance without any warning. They did warn that there would be pain involved in the birth of the new Kingdom. But, more importantly, they made it clear that the bringing in of the Kingdom would not be just something that God did to the people of God, it would be something that the people of God were deliberately included in. What is more and what is in keeping with the ways of God is that people will not be coerced into being part of the transition, everyone will have a choice, everyone has a choice, and must choose, now.

We are talking about choosing between good and evil, between the status quo and the new, between earth and heaven, between the treasures of earth and the treasures of heaven.

Unfortunately, although we would prefer everything in our religion to be all amicable and inclusive, the truth is that according to Jesus Christ the coming in of the Kingdom of God will be divisive and there will be no way to avoid this fact. That is what Jesus is talking about when he warns that households will be divided against themselves. He is saying that some people will choose the Kingdom and some people will cling to the present earth.

We know much about the ways of the Kingdom of God because Jesus told us of the ways. We know that these ways should be part of our lives now as we live as people of the Kingdom that is already here with us now. And we know that how we live now will effect our lives, not only in this present life but also in the life to come. And what is more, the way we live our lives now will effect the very nature of the Kingdom of God. That is why it is so important that we make a definite choice to be bringers in of the Kingdom and that we make that choice now before it is too late.

The end is nigh.

The end is always nigh.

Be Not Afraid! Be Very Not Afraid!

My sermon for last Sunday,
the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost,
( the eleventh Sunday after Trinity ):

Jesus said to his disciples, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

( Luke 12:32-40 )

Our reading today from the "Gospel of Luke," is about judgement. Jesus Christ's judgement of our lives when he returns to the world to herald in the kingdom of God. It is about the criteria that Jesus will use when he judges us.

By the way a lot of Christians have gone on, and still go on, about what people should be allowed to do and what they should not be allowed to do, about what God likes and what God hates, about who are real Christians and who are revisionist antichrists, you would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Jesus, during his ministry on earth, gave us a long list of clearly defined dos and don'ts concerning how we should live our lives or, rather, how other people should live their lives. But I have read the Gospels, not just books about the Gospels, quite a few times and as far as I can work out, during his ministry on earth, Jesus preached just two messages.

Message one - God is near to us and loves us.

Message two - sell everything you don’t actually need and give the money to the poor.

The early believers believed this. Many of the early Christians died for the first message, and most of them put the second message into practice. In the "Book of the Acts of the Apostles" we are told that those who didn’t, came to a sticky end, although I would take that with a pinch of salt. It was probably a parable of the Church emphasising how seriously the concept of owning all things in common was taken. Poverty for the sake of others, was a central foundation of Christ’s teaching and was, most definitely, the practice of the early Church.

We just cannot hide from the fact that Christ’s message was that radical. It is about a complete change of life for those who decide to follow Christ’s teachings. And it is not just about giving away our money. What Christ demands from us is a radical change of emphasis in our lives, a radical change in the way we live our lives.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this very frightening because I know that if a thief, to use Christ's own metaphor, was to come and burgle my house tonight, that thief would find all the doors and windows wide open and be greeted by a big sign saying "Come on in and help yourself!"

It's not that I don't know what I should do and, intellectually,  I do want to do it. But I keep putting it off. I keep putting off making the commitment to the Gospel that I know I should make. I am half-hearted about my commitment to Christ's teaching. At best, I am a part time Christian, a bit of Jekyll and Hyde, and,  knowing my luck Jesus is going to return as I am shouting at a fellow motorist who has just cut me up rather than when I am putting loose change into a beggar's cap.

The bad news for me and, let's be honest, for most Christians, is that Christianity is not an occupation for part timers. The love that God has for us, what God has done for us, "demands our souls, our lives, our all." It demands commitment, full time commitment. Are we prepared to commit ourselves to God's great project? Are we prepared to stop chasing after the baubles and bling of this world so that we can prepare ourselves to receive the eternal treasures of the kingdom of God?

We should not be afraid. At least, we should not be too afraid. Christ's teaching about the self-sacrifice that the kingdom life demands of us, a level of righteousness that most of us will never achieve, is tempered by his first, and far more important teaching, that God is near to us and that God loves us. Christ will, therefore, be a merciful judge who we know will do everything he possibly can to secure for us our freedom. However, although the grace of God is infinite, it is not, according to Jesus Christ, unconditional. At the very least we have to want to receive God's grace and this desire must be reflected in the way we try to live our lives. God will not be fooled by fools. If they think he can be then those fools are only fooling themselves.

Mad Messiah

THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST ( YEAR C )
THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY ( YEAR C )
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

If you want to see a good film about demon possession then “The Exorcist” is the one you should go for. It’s a scary film, not nice in places but it is very well researched. The writer, William Peter Blatty, researched the subject thoroughly and the director even employed a Roman Catholic priest as an advisor during the making of the film. It’s based on what a lot of Christians believe about demons and demon possession. It is Biblically based. The plot is, at least loosely, based on the story in today's Gospel reading. At the end of the film the priest, who has been attending the exorcism of a young girl, rids the girl of her demons by tricking the demons into possessing him instead, whereupon he throws himself down a flight of steps, bringing to mind, of course, the herd of pigs throwing themselves down the bank into the lake.

But “The Exorcist” is a film. It’s a fantasy.

The question as to whether or not demons actually exist is a controversial one. Some Christians are convinced they do, whilst others see such beliefs as superstitious nonsense. I think we can say that Jesus definitely believed in the existence of demons, but Jesus, the God who became human, was a man of his time, he lived within the context of the culture in to which he had been born.

Was the man in tonight’s reading possessed by demons? I would have to say, probably not. You see, there are many examples of demon possession in the Bible and even more in the non canonical writings of the early Christians. There would appear to have been demons everywhere. If they were so common then, where are they now? We just do not come across demon possessed people in such numbers anymore. I would suggest to you that demon possession was in fact the explanation by the people of the time for certain forms of chronic mental illness. This suggestion is given credence by the fact that mental illness is not mentioned specifically in the Bible under its correct diagnosis.

Speaking from experience I can tell you that there are similarities between the symptoms of mental illness and the symptoms of the demoniacs of the Bible. For a start suffering from mental illness feels like you are possessed by something alien to yourself. Our sense of self, our understanding of who we are, is based on what we think, our thoughts, our memories. When we are mentally ill our thoughts change, we believe things to be true that are not true, we can’t control our thoughts. Our thoughts can become very loud and all consuming. It is like somebody else is inside our head. People we know, people we live with, will tell us that we are not the person they once knew.

The demoniac in our reading is probably a schizophrenic and his behaviour would have frightened the people who came in contact with him. Because of this he has been ejected from the community and he now lives among the tombs. Things have not changed much. I have worked with homeless people and I can say that a large proportion of the homeless suffer from mental illness. Once they were looked after in institutions but since the advent of care in the community more and more have been left to fend for themselves and so more and more have ended up on the streets.

Madness is still a taboo subject. Like the man in today's reading the mad are excluded from society, they are seen as an embarrassment, as a problem, as potential psychopaths. Even the Church is guilty of discrimination. Mental illness is the only illness that is a bar to ordination. The Church is scared stiff that those who have suffered from mental health problems might cause a scandal. As I was recovering from a serious bout of depression I was asked to retire by my Archdeacon. There was no understanding of the fact that a person who has been through the dark night of the soul that is mental illness could have a ministry that is informed by the experience. I did not retire but fearful church leaders eventually got their way. I have been unemployed for six years now because of my medical history even though I have not had a work-affecting bout of mental illness for over fifteen years.

Those considered mad are outsiders. They are today and they were in Jesus’ time. The man in our reading was an outsider in two respects. Firstly, he was ill. Secondly he was most probably a gentile because there would not have been a herd of pigs in a Jewish settlement. The man was completely outside of society, shunned with more vehemence than a leper. He was in mental anguish, he was living like an animal, he was without hope.

Into this situation comes Jesus and he cures the man and he gives him peace of mind.

On one level this is just another account of a miraculous healing. But, as I emphasised in a sermon a few weeks ago, the actions of Christ are more than actions, they are enacted parables which contain the teachings of Christ just as much, if not more, than his words do. The demoniac was a real person, an individual, with a real problem which was got rid of by Jesus. But he is also everyman. He represents us all. We are all possessed by demons. We are possessed by sin, by guilt, by feelings of hatred and anger, by depression, by jealousy and all sorts of negative stuff. We live among the tombs. We are naked but we do not realise it.

Only Jesus can offer us a release from these demons that possess us. He offers us salvation, he offers us freedom, he offers us a new life within the new world that is to come where we will be accepted and not rejected. It does not matter if we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, black or white, mad or sane. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God. It is a shame that the Church does not offer the same welcome to the outsiders of our present world. In fact, in being as bigoted as the world at large they bring more scandal on themselves and on God's name than anything an included outcast might do because their excluding attitude is completely the opposite of that of Jesus Christ, the God who was himself rejected by many but who persistently welcomes all.

All Things Were Made By Him

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST ( YEAR C )
THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY ( YEAR C )
1 Kings 17:17-24
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Are you impressed by God's raising of Jesus Christ from the dead?

I am not.

A God who is responsible for our very creation is hardly going to find bringing one man back to life a difficult thing to do. It is hard to view it as anything more than a magic trick, albeit it a very good magic trick performed by one heck of a magician and, as the much-loved, former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, notoriously observed once, "a conjuring trick with bones proves only that somebody's very clever at a conjuring trick with bones." In other words, it is entertaining but not life changing, except for the person who is brought back to life, of course.

So, what was the point of the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ? Was it just to show those who observed it that the God they already believed to be all-powerful was all-powerful? Maybe gentiles were convinced of the reality of the God of the Jewish people by this show of power which was greater than anything they had witnessed Zeus and his pantheon doing, but the Jews, those who formed the early Christian community, did not really need such convincing as their God had a proven track record for performing the spectacularly miraculous. At the end of the day was it just God showing off, a purely arbitrarily chosen act of divine oneupmanship?

I do not think so. Furthermore, I think that anyone who views it as such has simply not got the ministry of Jesus Christ. They are members of the audience who have marvelled at and applauded all the visual genius of Jesus Christ but who did not listen to a single word he said.

Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh. By his very nature everything he is , everything he does, everything he says is Word based. And Christ is the performative Word incarnate, the story as reality writ large. We all know that the parables he told were stories containing important truths, mostly about the Kingdom of God. I suggest to you that they were more than fables, that they were prophesies and, even more, that they were performative prophesies. Their telling by the Son of God turned them from being a fiction into being part of the reality of what will be God's new creation, part of God's new covenant with his people, an outworking of God's new commandment.

For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us a lot about the hypocrisy of those who considered themselves holy and important. It tells us a lot about the general lack of awareness we all have for the suffering of others and our reluctance to get involved in anything that might distract us from our intended plans. It tells us that in life we should expect the unexpected. But it is also a story about restoration and inclusion. What is more, because the words of the Word, Jesus Christ, create reality (all things come into being through him) this parable turns hoped for restoration and inclusion into two, very real, mainstays of the Kingdom of God if not, sadly, the Church of God.

It is my belief that parables are at the centre of Christ's ministry and I do not think that the parables of Christ are restricted to just words that are spoken by Christ. To me it is obvious that many of his actions are parables too. Although the crowds who followed Jesus around cried out for proofs of his power, when Jesus did employ the miraculous it was not to show off his divine power. I believe that the miracles of Christ were also parables and parables that created a new reality within the Kingdom of God in the same way I believe that his spoken parables do.

The miracles of abundance, such as the feeding of the five thousand, are parables about the abundance of good things that await us in the Kingdom of God and how we will be sustained forever by God. The miracles of salvation, such as the stilling of the storm, are parables about how we will be saved from all the danger and crap of this world and brought into the safe harbour that is the Kingdom of God. The miracles of healing are parables about the healing of our battered souls and bodies that we will experience when we move from this world into the Kingdom and may well experience, to an extent, in our present existence. The miracles of resurrection, such as the incident reported in today's gospel reading in which Christ brings a widow's only son back to life, are parables of new life, of how we will be raised to new life in the kingdom of God.

Let us then take this train of thought to its ultimate destination. If the words of Jesus Christ are parables of the kingdom and the miracles of Jesus Christ are parables of the kingdom then why should not the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ also be one, big, performative parable of the glorious world to come? It would make sense of a lot of things.

For a start it raises the resurrection of Christ from being a mundane conjuring trick with bones into the action that both describes and makes real the promise of our own resurrection when we die. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is about Jesus Christ but it is more so about us. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the great parable of the Christian faith. It's message is about our salvation and its performance by Christ makes that salvation a reality. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a trick it is the real thing. We are not to be simply impressed by the resurrection of Christ we are to be changed by it. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are born again.

Three Is A Magic Number

According to Wikipedia, "The Christian doctrine of the Trinity (from the Latin trinitas meaning "triad") defines God as three consubstantial persons or hypostases - the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit - as "one God in three Divine Persons". The three persons are distinct, yet are one "substance, essence or nature". In this context, a "nature" is what one is, while a "person" is who one is.

It sounds complicated and it is. In fact it is overcomplicated, obtuse, a fudge of a doctrine arrived at after centuries of bitter debate. It is the proverbial horse designed by a committee. It is a concept so difficult to get your head around that many teachers of the Christian faith over the years, when backed against a wall and told to define the Trinity, have chickened out by employing the "It's a mystery" gambit.

I don't like mysteries and I really don't like the idea of a mysterious God. I have enough trouble understanding what's going on around me in this world without having to cope with divine obscurantism. Being the evangelist for a mysterious God is like being a salesman who is employed to sell a wonderful new machine to the public without having any idea what the machine is for. Every time a prospective customer asks him what the machine can do he is forced to answer, "It's a mystery." Nobody is going to buy his product. Why would Christians think that giving the same answer to people who enquire about our religion could result in a different success rate to that achieved by our poorly informed sales assistant?

Why have we gotten ourselves into such a quandary over how many Gods we worship?

Actually, the answer is simple. The original followers of Christ were Jewish and the official religion of the Jews at that time was monotheistic and it had been since at least the seventh century B.C. I say official, because Jewish monotheism was a broad synagogue with all sorts of aspects of God being regarded as separate personalities, even different genders. For example there is Wisdom, she whom we heard about in today's Old Testament reading and the spirit of God who was developing its own distinct character a long time before Jesus started talking about the Advocate. Therefore, in order not to scare off potential converts from Judaism early Christian evangelists and apologists tried to big up the one God thing even when it started to become obvious to them that their new understanding of the Jewish religion appeared to have three distinct divinities as its focus, albeit three distinct persons existing together in a very unified way.

There was also a lot of argy bargy within the Christian community during the first few centuries of its existence over who was God. There were arguments, some leading to the creation of factions and even to schism within the faith, over whether or not Jesus was divine or just a human. As in all such cases, those with the most power eventually won and the Church, which had bought into the whole emperor idea when Christianity became the state religion of Rome, ended up emphasising the oneness of the Godhead rather than its multiplicity. Dictatorship ruled in both secular life and religion. Neither the emperor or the pope had much regard for collectivism of any sort. However, the Church was not prepared to ditch its belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. So, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated which its promulgators believed allowed Christians to have their cake and eat it too.

How then does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity play out in the everyday, spiritual lives of the Christian faithful?

Speaking for myself, I have to admit that I definitely relate to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as three, very distinct persons. I always pray to them as individuals. I never pray to the Trinity as a single entity. I do not lose sleep over this as, to be completely honest, it makes not a jot of difference to me whether there are three Gods or one. I do not regard singularity as being intrinsically more perfect than multiplicity. However, I do most strongly believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one and that the nature of their oneness is of the utmost importance to all of us.

There are two main ways of understanding oneness. There is the one of singularity and then there is the one of unity. The singular one is alone, complete in itself, there is no other. In theological terms this one is the deity Muslims refer to as Allah. The unified one is composite, dependent on its parts, not fully complete unless all its fractions are joined together seamlessly. This one is the God of the Christian faith.

I do not think this is just a matter of semantics. God, who is three persons in unity as one, is the paradigm par excellence for how the people of God should relate to the three persons of God and to each other. The most important aspect of the Trinity is that it is a relationship and the most important aspect of the Christian faith is that it is relational. At least it should be as the togetherness of his followers was something that Jesus Christ emphasised right up to the very end of his earthly ministry and made provision for after his ascension in the sending of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit of God. The unity of the Trinity is the centre of a much greater unity, the unity of the people of God with their God and with each other. Now, I am not talking about one Church here, that's just human politics. No, I am referring to the spiritual unity of Christians which should be made manifest in the world in their love for one another.

That there is relationship within the Godhead means that the Godhead of the Christian faith is dynamic and changing. There is a strand of thought within both Christianity and Judaism that would have God forever the same, but this is just not the reality of the situation if the witness of both the Old and New Testaments is to be believed. If it is the prerogative of a woman to change her mind then it may well be that the God of both Jew and Christian is a female deity because God was always changing God's mind. Not only that but God changed God's mind after conversation. In the Old Testament we come across this most explicitly in the relationship between Moses and God. At times the two of them bickered like a long married couple. In the New Testament, Jesus talks to his Father in heaven as if his Father is open to persuasion and tells his followers to do the same. He tells us to nag God until God gives in and gives us what we are asking for. Such a persuadable God is not a block of unmovable granite. Quite the contrary. Such a God is pliable, like a flesh and blood Father open to his children rushing up to him squealing "Please daddy, please, please, please!"

Like the Trinity we too should be open to change, open to persuasion. As with the Trinity there should be discussion, even argument, among the people of God and freely accepted agreement rather than imposed compliance. There is democracy within the consubstantial Trinity and there should be a similar democratic self governance within the body of the community of believers. There is equality within the Trinity. There is not equality in the Church but there should be.

In conclusion I suggest that three Gods are better than one, but only if they are one. A true communion of believers is better than a believer living out faith in isolation, but only if we are one. And the nature of the oneness that we, the followers of Christ, should be aspiring to is that of the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The oneness of togetherness not the oneness of loneliness.

Bearing The Cross

“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called, in Hebrew, Golgotha.”

There was a programme on TV in England this week called "The Battle for Christianity." It was about how most of our churches are in serious decline with fewer and fewer people attending them as each year passes. But there are churches that are bucking this trend where the congregations are growing, where literally thousands of people turn up to worship every week. It is no secret why these churches are so well attended. They follow a formula that has been tried and tested over many years, one which any church could adopt if they so wished.Basically, the leaders of these churches primarily preach one simple message which is “Become a Christian and everything will be alright.”

It works and the churches and their leaders prosper. They are full of healthy, young people with money to enthusiastically put in the collection plate. They celebrate youth, health, family and prosperity and they have found that there are still plenty of people out there who want to worship these things, preferably to the accompaniment of a boy band beat. Easy grace is always on offer. Believe and YOU will be saved and bugger everyone else.

It is law of business that if you want to sell your product you have to make it attractive and as cheap as possible. If you owned a shop and you put a big notice up in the window that said, “We guarantee that all our goods are twice as expensive as everybody else's and will make your life a lot harder” you might as well not bother opening up because nobody in their right mind is going to come in and buy. So, like a successful shop, a church that wants to be successful must make the product that it is trying to sell appealing and cheap. A nice, easy Christianity, with no demands. A Christianity that fits in with the punters’ existing lifestyles. A Christianity that makes you feel good. A supermarket religion for the shopping mall generation.

Of course, there is a problem here which is the fact that such a religion, though very tempting, has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Christianity.

In reality, as opposed to in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Christianity hurts. It hurts because it is about coming alongside other people and other people are hurting. It hurts because it is about sharing with other people and sometimes the only thing other people have to share with you is their pain. It hurts because it is a faith that was born through the suffering of Jesus Christ and to fully understand what that suffering achieved you have to become one with Christ and when you do that you will feel his pain.

In this fallen world it is difficult to cope with our own pain. We hide from it, we distract ourselves with worldly pleasures, we suppress the memory of the things that have hurt us. Surely, only a fool would not only embrace their own pain but take on the pain of other people as well? But the Christian is expected to, in fact the Christian has no choice in the matter. If we are serious about our faith then we will be made to carry some of the burden of the world’s suffering. We are like Simon of Cyrene. He did not want to carry the cross for Jesus but the soldiers made him carry it. Not all the way; Jesus carried it for the greater part, but for part of the way he carried it. As if to emphasise the part that his followers were to play in the bringing in of the Kingdom of God, Jesus publicly allowed an ordinary, nothing special, man, who just happened to be there, to share his burden.

No doubt, Simon did not realise the honour that he had been accorded until afterwards, and that is usually the same for us. When we are feeling the pain of the Lord as we minister to his hurting children, or coping with our own suffering, we do not enjoy it. In fact to enjoy it would be perverse and indicate a sense of pride in us not acceptable to God. And we should not embrace pain for its own sake, as some Christians have done in the past, as this is foolish romanticism and, again, perverse. God will allot to us the suffering that we can bear. Maybe our own suffering, maybe the suffering of another person. But the suffering that we share with Christ is a redeemed suffering, a suffering from which good will come. Maybe the good will not be for ourselves, or not for ourselves in this life. Maybe the good will be for others. For instance, in the early years of Christianity people saw how the martyrs bore their pain and many were led to faith in Christ by their example.

Pain will be a part of every Christian’s journey and we should be aware of this, we should make sure people searching for God understand this and although we should not revel in our suffering, although we should always seek ways to alleviate pain, both in others and in ourselves, we should see our suffering almost as a prayer, as a way of coming closer to God, whose Son shared in our suffering, and we should regard it as an honour bestowed on us by God who trusts us to share in his Son’s continuing redemption of the world.

So faith is painful and it is also costly. In the supermarket churches people only take what they want and ignore the parts of Christianity that do not appeal to them or which would demand to much from them. But if you really buy into the Christian faith then you will be expected to purchase everything in the store. Otherwise you are like the rich young prince who could obey the law, who could love God and his neighbour but who could not give up his personal wealth that was getting between him and God. Christianity is about commitment, costly commitment. Again it was our Lord Jesus who showed us how costly faith in God the Father could be. We will never be expected to pay the price he did but we will be expected to pay a price. True faith is expensive.

The Christian faith is painful and it is costly, and it does not give you easy answers. The supermarket church does, it says, “come inside and we will give you answers to all your questions, we will tell you exactly how you should lead your lives, we will tell you exactly how everybody else should live their lives as well so that you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, so that life is nice and simple for you. We will tell you what to believe, we will translate the word of God for you.”

But, again, Christianity is not like that. God takes his gift to his people of free will very seriously in deed. We are expected to use our own brains, he does not give us all the answers. Love God and love your neighbour, Jesus said. How we do that he leaves up to us to work out. Even Christ’s death and resurrection pose more questions than they answer. We were given an answer on that cross but at best we only catch glimpses of it, we see through the glass darkly, and it will not be until we are with him in his kingdom that we will finally understand the ways of God.

So if Christianity is painful, costly and ambiguous why should anybody want to become part of it? Why put ourselves out for so little instant gratification, which is what most people are after nowadays? Is it for the spiritual highs we experience in worship? Is it for knowledge, health, prosperity? Is it to learn how to be good? Is it for the satisfaction of knowing we are on the side of the good guys? Or is it something more long-lasting and profound, like knowing we are loved by God or even for the promise of eternal life? Actually it is for none of these. There is only one reason why you should become a Christian, why you should give up everything you previously held to be precious, why you should accept the suffering that you will be asked to bear, why you should agree to be led, like Saint Peter “where you do not wish to go,” without knowing all the answers and on a journey where all you have is your faith. The reason is very simple. Embracing the Christian faith and all it entails is the only possible, honest and human response to the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us on the cross at the Place of the Skull all those years ago. Jesus has already done enough to be able to demand our very lives from us. He does not have to promise us anything more, he does not owe us anything, in fact, we owe everything to him. Once we have been told about the passion of Christ and believe it to be true, once we understand the love that Christ had for us, then we simply have to give our lives to him, we simply have to love him. We can no longer put ourselves first, we can no longer hold the things of the world, which were previously so dear to us, to be of any worth at all. Not riches, not possessions, not family or friends, not anything.

When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.

His dying crimson like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then I am dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The New Commandment

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you"
( John 13:34 )

Imagine the scene. You are at a lavish state banquet at Buckingham Palace. The Queen herself presides at the top table, resplendent in a silk gown and and bejewelled with diamonds. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, Her Majesty rises from her seat. Removing her tiara, she whips out a flowery apron from beneath her chair, and ties it firmly around her royal middle. Then she moves swiftly along the line of chairs, reaching over the astonished diners to collect up their plates, scraping leftovers into a messy pile on the top one.

queen_washIn the stunned silence, you glance at the guest beside you, who looks as horrified as you feel. Footmen come running, try to relieve Her Majesty of the task, but she shrugs them aside. "This is something one has to do," she insists.

At the Last Supper, the disciples were as stunned as the Queen's guests in our story, when their Lord, their King, got up in the middle of the meal, wrapped a towel around himself, and insisted on washing their dusty feet. To the disciples it was unthinkable that their leader should so demean himself. As unthinkable as the Queen of England doing the washing up after a state banquet. One thing was for certain, the weirdness of the situation meant that the disciples would never forget the incident, or what Jesus had to say to them about it.

Quite what the Queen wanted to show by her actions in our fable must be left to the imagination. Perhaps she, too, was making a point. Jesus, however, openly explained to his astounded disciples that he was illustrating something: "I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done.." And, lest they misinterpret this simply as an order to wash feet, he issued the universal rule which his specific action had illustrated: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you."

On this last night before he died, Jesus instilled into his disciples the need to serve others humbly, as he did. The events of the next three days would add an extra dimension to this instruction. His love for his disciples stretched beyond washing their feet; he would die for them, to wash away their sins. He laid aside his heavenly identity, to die upon the cross, just as he laid aside his outer robe to wash their feet. And just as he put on his robe again afterwards and returned to the head of the table, so he resumed his identity as Lord and God after his crucifixion, rising from the dead to return to his Father, to sit at God's right hand at the head of the heavenly table.

On Maundy Thursday, we commemorate the new commandment, that we should love one another as Christ loves us, as we await the events of Good Friday and Easter, which give the commandment its full meaning. Sunday by Sunday, at Holy Communion, we recall these events, in remembrance of him. But, of course, it is no good just remembering what Jesus did and said if we are not prepared to copy his example and obey his commandments. We need to love others, in remembrance of him. Sacrament and service: one is meaningless without the other.

The commandment to love was not new, since it was already a part of Jewish religious practice: "Love your neighbour as yourself." What was new about the commandment Jesus gave us was the reference to himself as pattern and example, and the reason for following it which was so that others would know we are his disciples. We, too, all these years later, are called to love others in imitation of Christ's love for us: self-giving, and not clinging to our dignity.

The idea of being a servant like Jesus was a servant, the Servant King, beloved of modern hymn writers, is very popular nowadays in the Church, and the higher up the hierarchy you go the more it is mentioned. However, I am yet to see servanthood truly embraced by those with power without there being an alternative motive. The Church has always had a problem in being truly servant-like and the reason is that it likes power too much. It likes authority. It likes to keep its power and authority within just a small group. The members of this group tend to come from certain university and college backgrounds. In my church there is still very much an old school tie ethos.

But, Jesus Christ was a radical and a revolutionary. He was not a good, conservative Jew. Those who write books stating that he was are blatantly ignoring the gospel record. Like latter dsy upsetters of the status quo such as de Vinci, Newton, Marx, Darwin and Einstein, Jesus preached a message that shocked the world. It still does. We still find the idea that power structures should be inverted very scary, very unsettling, very dangerous. We find it particularly scary when such teaching is directed at ourselves. We are selfish animals. We want to be served. We don’t want to do the serving. Most of us who take Christ’s teaching seriously have to force ourselves into servanthood. Certainly I have to, all the while.

To be a servant you have to be prepared to make sacrifices. Your pride, your dignity, your power, your influence, your standing in the community; all these things will have to be sacrificed if you follow the example of Jesus. And Jesus expects us to make such sacrifices for the kingdom, and he has the right to do so because he himself made the ultimate sacrifice. He laid aside his majesty, his power and authority and suffered complete degradation. The King of the Universe, nailed to a couple of bits of wood and left to die. He did not do that in order for nothing to change.

Sermon: The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2015

"Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Every generation has been an adulterous and sinful one. There has never been a golden age of righteous living. Of course, at any one time there will be different levels of wickedness going down in different places on earth and occasionally there will be times when in certain places the level of wickedness is so high that it shoots off the scale, such as in periods of genocide or mass enslavement. It is in such times that sin becomes pure evil. However, I expect if it was possible to quantify unrighteous behaviour we would discover that, stretched across the whole world and over a period of fifty years or so, the average would remain constant.

The same is not true about the amount of shame Christians feel about their religion. That does vary from age to age, as well as from place to place. It's causes also vary. For example, at the start of the Christian era going around proclaiming your allegiance to Christ in public could result in an untimely and, most often, prolonged and gory death. It must have taken incredibly strong faith and great courage not to decide to hide your religious loyalties when faced with such horrific persecution. There is no way I would ever condemn those who chose to remain silent about their faith or even those who publicly renounced Jesus when arrested because I really do not know if I would have acted any different to them if I found myself in their situation.

To only a slightly lesser extent such violence against Christians still exists in our world today. Islamic persecution against Christians has been constant throughout the Islamic world since only a few years after that religion began. Muhammed himself treated Jews and Christians very cruelly indeed. The injustice non-Muslims experienced under Muslim rule led many millions of Christians to reject Jesus and convert to Islam over the years. It is the descendants of those Christians who bravely refused to be bullied into renouncing their Christian faith who are suffering today in fundamentalist Islamic cultures such as Pakistan, Iraq and the regions of the Middle East controlled by ISIS and the Taliban. Again, I cannot possibly condemn those who have chosen to flee the persecution rather than to stand in the market squares of the East proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ.

During the last one hundred years there has been also been much persecution of Christians, in fact people of all faiths, in communist states. This is still going on, big time, in China and North Korea. Right now the Chinese authorities are systematically pulling down Christian churches and this is on top of the routine imprisonment of individual Christians, especially those who are from the evangelical tradition. It is the fact that Christianity has persisted under regimes which employ imprisonment, torture and execution in their attempt to eradicate it, that is the surprise not the fact that so many Christians, understandably in my opinion, decided to enlist with the enemy and save themselves and their families.

It has been a long time since Christians have faced violent persecution in the West. The last time Christians feared for their lives because of their faith was during the aftermath of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and then they were not being attacked by the authorities of other religions but by the rulers of the differing factions of their own. However, there is force at work in Western culture that is persuading Christians and potential converts to Christianity, to be ashamed of Jesus Christ, with a higher success rate than all the persecutions of the past put together. It is amazing how much pain people can endure without forsaking their beliefs. Strangely, embarrassment, a mere emotional response, is something that is extremely difficult for people to endure and the enemies of religion have realised this. At this moment in time in the West the greatest cause of apostasy and non-conversion is shame.

I have been a Christian all of my life. I cannot remember a time when I didn't believe in the reality of the Christian story. Therefore, it came as a great surprise to me when I discovered on arriving at senior school that being a Christian was an extremely untrendy thing to be. Those of us who were discovered to be believers in God were ridiculed by our peers and by many of our teachers. It was a boys only school and basically the main line of attack on us was that being a Christian was sissy. That if you were a Christian you were a poof, a bender, queer, a homo and, in the early nineteen seventies' Britain being gay was almost universally regarded as a shameful and perverted thing to be, especially if you were a young lad living in the backwater of a small, provincial factory town.

I cannot remember how I first reacted to this onslaught against my faith, I probably just kept quiet about my religion. But I have always been as stubborn as a mule and I do remember that I eventually kicked back and would arrive at school with a "Jesus Christ: He's The Real Thing" badge proudly pinned to the lapel of my blazer and would leave flyers for the local "Jesus Movement" concert venue all over the shop. Of course, nowadays the institutionally hatred of Christianity is so intense that any student turning up at a state school visibly displaying their Christian faith in such a way would probably be suspended on the spot, but back then religious expression was still officially tolerated and the worst I risked was a beating up in the schoolyard.

Between the end of my schooldays and today things have got far, far more difficult for Christians in England, especially for our young. No longer are Christians accused of being effeminate as that has almost become, post "Naked Civil Servant," a badge of honour. Christians are now tempted to be ashamed of their God and Savior because of constant ridiculing by right on comedians and celebrity seeking scientists. Comedians, such as Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin, rap on and on in their sets  about how stupid Christians are and such comedians are regarded, ironically, as demigods by their fans, especially their young fans. They are seen as being something to aspire to and if they are so anti-Christianity the message is that being a Christian is not something to aspire to. Worse than that being a Christian is uncool.

Atheistic scientists also employ the Christians must be stupid tactic. The irony in their position is that their arrogance, their belief in the correctness of everything they believe, their devotion to the binding scientific method, turns them into fundamentalists far more severe than the most hardcore creationist. And they can be very nasty. Scientists who dare to own up to even the slightest whiff of Christian faith do not just face ridicule from their colleagues. Many have been frozen out the scientific community. Many have been brazenly sacked.

As I stated earlier, I am a stubborn kind of fellow. I am naturally so. Being stubborn requires no effort of fortitude on my part. I do not recommend it as a personality trait as being stubborn has pretty much ruined my life. It has certainly curtailed my career and left me with very few friends in the real world. I cannot claim any kudos for myself for having remained resolutely Christian throughout my life as who I am destined me to be so. The people I respect are those Christians who do not have my pathological tenaciousness but who still refuse to be ashamed of Jesus Christ despite the constant pressure from the zeitgeist of out modern Western culture that they should be so. With practicing Christians being very much a minority in populations in countries such as England at this moment in time, not being ashamed of Christ can end you up in a very lonely place. That is why it is imperative that the Church in such lands stops being so wimpish about its proclamation of the gospel, so apologetic about its beliefs, so respectful of the people who are deliberately trying to destroy our faith and snatch our young people from us. The Church should be empowering the people of God to fight back and in kind. I know pride is supposed to be a deadly sin but, quite honestly, we could do with a bit more in our faith and a lot more pride in our God. Our people should avoid the temptation to become arrogant but we do need to allow more certainty into our understanding of life. We do not know how the universe began or why the quantum universe is so different to the classical universe, but we do know there is more to life than mathematical equations. We also know that God loves us and that Jesus Christ is the saviour of our world.

Look at us. Us Christians. We are not that special by even human standards. We are sinners. We are losers and failures. Not one of us hasn't screwed at some point in our lives and most of us have done so over and over again. Yet, Jesus Christ, the one person who did get it right, is not ashamed of us. Christ knows why, but our nature does not embarrass him. So, the least we could do is to have the guts to not be ashamed of Jesus Christ. It's the descent thing to do and, if that is not enough for you, then it is also part of the way to eternal life. It is refusing such a wonderful future because of temporary embarrassment that is stupid not believing it to be true. Put that in your easy laugh pipe, Mister Comedian, and smoke it!

Sermon: The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2015

My apologies for the lateness in the posting of this sermon but I have been away in the Lake District which is almost devoid of any internet service.

*****

I am possibly the most conservative (with a small "c") rebel in the world. Although I campaign vociferously for the reformation of the Church, my own church in particular, I do so whilst being, personally, very uncomfortable with change especially change that affects my day to day life. In fact, the word "uncomfortable" completely understates my feelings about things changing because, to be honest, I can become majorly upset and panicky when things are different. Change is actually painful for me.

Therefore, it is no surprise that I am a great respecter of tradition, of doing things the way they have always been done. This is reflected in my choice of Anglo-Catholicism as my churchmanship. When I go to church I like to feel comfortable. I don't want to be surprised. Although I don't get upset if things are not done exactly as prescribed in "Ritual Notes" I do expect things to be done with the appropriate amount of gravitas and done well. Certainly, I put a lot of effort into doing just that on the rare occasions somebody lets me loose to preside at a service in their church.

Of course, I am not alone. Church is chock-a-block full of traditions and every one of them will have defenders prepared to split their church in two rather than see their favoured traditions superseded by novelties.

The word “tradition” is given worth by certain factions within the Church of almost unimpeachable merit and is always linked by them to the word “orthodox.” By doing this, such factions are able to label as heretics anybody who disagrees with them. But, of course, these groups are no more traditionalist or orthodox than any other Christians because traditions, and for that matter most of what we regard as orthodox, are human inventions arrived at through human creativity and human reasoning. They were not given to us by God although God may allow us to use them in order to make our worship more fulfilling and our understanding of him more helpful.

All the fancy clothes priests wear in church, all the ritual in every service throughout the year, the order of each service, the colours in church, when and where we have flowers, what we do at the peace, how we take communion, when we are baptised, when we are allowed to take communion, who’s allowed to bless, who’s allowed to preach, absolutely everything in church is a tradition. Everything is of human invention, and, you know, that’s wonderful. Like our maker we are creative beings and we should enjoy being creative. In creating we are striving for the divine. However, we should never become so arrogant about our creations that we give to them divine status. Our creativity in church  or anywhere else can never be equal to the creativity of God. Therefore, our creativity is not sacrosanct.

To be honest, I doubt that God cares what we do in church, only that what we do in church brings us closer to God. God cannot be effected by the way we worship. All God is interested in is that there is love between us. Throughout Old Testament times God tells the prophets over and over again that it is the love of his people that he desires not their sacrifices, not their elaborate rituals? That is what Jesus is saying in our Gospel reading this morning. He is telling the pharisees and scribes that what they hold to be divine is only of human creation. That their traditions are for their own satisfaction and that they do not satisfy God, and worse than that, their human traditions have become so important to them that they have usurped the commandments of God, given to them so they could enjoy the love of God. They have become prisoners of the law that is of their own making and they are unwilling, and unable by their own means, to break free from their prison.

I fear that many parts of the Church today have become prisons and that we have become our own jailers. We have bound ourselves with tradition, with arbitrary dogmas about what is natural and what isn't, with chains that we seem completely unable to shake off, even when we are rendered completely impotent by them. This is extremely bad news because it stops us from pursuing our primary vocation as Christians, that of proclaiming the gospel and giving the gospel life in our actions. No wonder the number of people attending traditional churches is becoming less and less at a terrifying speed.

If we are to become relevant to the people of the world, who need, most urgently, the love of God, we must break free from our self-imprisonment, throw off our chains, and make our traditions the servants to the Gospel - not visa versa. God is love and God is freedom. Tradition and Law are only human. Once we realise that 99.9% of everything we do and believe as Christians is of our own invention then we become free people. Free as God would have us be.

So am I saying we should just ditch all the traditions of the Church? Of course not. Although Jesus could throw off the traditions of his own culture when the circumstances dictated that he should, he also adhered to and enjoyed the traditions he grew up with when it was right to do so. He made choices. Basically, Jesus was not childlike in his religious observation, he was a reasoning adult enjoying the freedom and rationality of thought that is God’s gift to all human beings. We too should be adult about our relationship with our traditions. We should enjoy them if they are good and helpful to us. We should ditch those traditions that are no longer worthwhile and we should be proactive in inventing new traditions. Most of all traditions should belong to us, not the other way around.

Sermon: The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2015

The manifestations of evil have been tediously the same from age to age. When it comes to wickedness, nothing ever changes. It's the same ole, same ole. The list of things not to do listed in the ten commandments were, no doubt, well known as causes of human suffering well before God dictated them to Moses. If a modern day Moses was to climb a mountain to get an update, other than the word "donkey" being replaced with the word "car," I very much doubt that God would bother making any changes. There would be no need. Most evil is caused by greed and always has been (greed for wealth, greed for power and greed for pleasure). Whether it's an office worker prepared to bad mouth her colleagues to get a promotion or the CEO of a multi-national company prepared to deny future generations a world to live in for profits today, its greed that rules. The military empires and religious leaders of Saint Paul's day may have been replaced by the employers of child labour and exploiters of the earth's mineral wealth who top the list of evil authorities and rulers today, but it's the same cause and effect. You would think by now that we would have learned to recognise evil in its limited guises and would routinely avoid it for the sake of fellow human beings and future generations. But, of course, although we are all well aware of just how much our lives are dominated by the greed of the wicked, great and small, we are not prepared to do anything constructive about it, probably because we are the wicked, great and small, ourselves. At the end of the day people are unwilling to tear down the rich and powerful from their thrones, which, considering how many of us there are would be quite easy to do, as long as there is even the remotest of possibilities that they might get to sit on those lofty thrones themselves. It would appear that although human beings are capable of great acts of altruism, on the whole we choose self-interest to be our main motivator in our daily lives.

Of course, greed is not the only cause of wicked deeds, there are others. Sadism, extreme hatred, anger spring to mind. But these are out of the ordinary, possibly pathological, motives for doing evil. And herein lies the big problem with evil - most of it is just normal behaviour. Greed, self-interest, selfishness, betrayal, all are hard wired into the psyche of everyone of us, even the most holy saint is prone to put himself first. It is human nature.

Which is why following Jesus is not an easy path to take. The selflessness that is demanded of a true Christian is attainable, as it is in our natures just as selfishness is, unless we are sociopathic which is a rare condition. But it is very difficult to maintain because it exists within our natures well below our capability to do just about anything to satisfy our lusts and our desire for self-preservation and self aggrandisement.

The truth is that we need help if we truly want to be disciples of Christ and his witnesses by our actions in the world today and the only person who can help us to be Christlike is Christ himself. Furthermore, it is not just a matter of imitating Christ (an idea which is rendered risible by our human weakness), we actually have to take Christ into ourselves, to consume him, to become one with him, to allow ourselves to be filled with his spirit if we want to achieve that state of being in which we will possess the strength to overcome our tendency to selfishness and allow our capability to be selfless come to the fore.

Our selfishness leads to us hurting other people to get what we want and that is evil. It is exactly the opposite of the selflessness that should be the pursuit of all Christians, which is the putting of the welfare of others before our own even if that means that harm may come to us in doing so. The ultimate paradigm of such a Godly life is Jesus Christ himself who allowed himself to be brutally tortured and killed by routinely evil men so that we might live.

We are given a choice. We are not compelled, we are not forced to follow the same path that Jesus trod. We are always free to walk away. But there is no alternative, easy path to salvation. As Simon Peter realised, there is nobody else for us to go to, only the teaching of Jesus leads to eternal life. Therefore, let us, like Peter and those of his companions who remained loyal to Christ, renounce evil and all its pettiness, choosing instead to believe in Christ, the Holy One of God, the only one who can make us holy and good and fit for the Kingdom of God.

Sermon: The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost 2015

“Jesus said to them... 'my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.'”

The most persistent enemies of true Christianity are the heresies we call gnosticism and docetism. Gnosticism holds that the natural world is composed of two elements, the physical and the spiritual. These are separate elements, and gnostics believe that they are at war with each other. The spiritual is good and the physical is bad. Docetism holds that, because the physical is bad then Jesus must be solely spiritual, his physical nature being merely an illusion. Not only have these two heresies been tenacious they have also been responsible for much discrimination and self-hatred.

Gnosticism has existed both outside the Church and within it, and this situation is still true today. Outside of the Church there were sects of Christian gnostics around at the time the Gospels were written. You can find passages in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, which were obviously written in response to gnostic heresy. Saint Iraneus wrote against the heresy in the Second Century, we still have many of his writings. In the third century the Manichaens became very powerful and their elaborate mythology very popular. Their religion was based on the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism that taught that there were two powers, the Lord of Light who represented the spiritual world and the Lord of Darkness who represented the material world. Mani, the founder of the religion, taught that we were prisoners of the material world from which we needed to escape. In the Middle Ages gnosticism reappeared in the form of the Cathars and Bogomils, two, probably related, groups who taught that material and physical pleasures were the distractions of the Devil.

However, the most dangerous forms of gnosticism are those found within the Church. Again these have been around since the beginning. Saint Paul has so many ideas that could be gnostic in his letters that the theologian, Elaine Pagels, was able to write an important book arguing that Paul was, in fact, a gnostic himself. I don’t think she is right, but we should be wary of some of the things he says especially when he is advocating a dualistic view of life and life after death. At the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo was  to enthusiastically denounce the flesh and his ideas had a huge influence on the philosophy of the scholastic schools of the Middle Ages. This has meant that the Roman Catholic Church has embraced to this day certain dualistic doctrines, which can be found in their teachings on sex and celibacy for example. In other denominations of Christianity, gnosticism tends to hide at the extremes, for example in Anglo-Catholicism (where women are often regarded as being dirty, especially during times of menstruation and childbirth) and Evangelicalism (where gay sex is regarded as dirty and unnatural).

So, dualistic philosophies, the belief that the material and the spiritual are separate and opposed to each other, have been with us a long time. But why are such views so dangerous? They are dangerous because they are contrary to our orthodox Christian teaching (the teaching of Christ) about our own nature, the nature of Creation and the nature of the Word made flesh.

Human beings are bodily creatures and were created good as such. God delighted in our bodies and God has promised that our resurrection, like that of Christ, will be a bodily one, our spirits will not leave leave our bodies to become ghosts somewhere. The Kingdom of God will be realised on earth. It will not be in the sky somewhere or on a different plane, in a different dimension. The New Jerusalem will be built here. The earth as created by God was originally good and this intrinsic goodness will be restored. The earth will not be replaced. The divine and the earthly will be as one a state of being that was prefigured by Jesus Christ who was truly God and truly human with no gap between the two natures. God and human were one in Jesus, which, when you think about it logically, has to be the case if salvation for humankind was achieved on the cross. And Jesus did not despise his human nature, he embraced it, because it was good, not sordid or evil. The Father saw that it was good.

The material world and the spiritual world are so closely entwined that they can be understood as one entity. That is why God can talk to us through the sacraments. In the sacraments physical reality and spiritual reality are as one. We may be part of a physical ritual whilst understanding that a spiritual event is taking place. For example in a christening we wash the babies head with water, but this washing with water, although very much a reality in the physical sense is also an iconic action through which we glimpse the spiritual washing away of human sin achieved by Christ on the cross.

Today’s Gospel reading is about the greatest of all the sacraments, the sacrament of the Eucharist. The evangelist, John, does not have the story about the institution of the Eucharist in his gospel and, so, many commentators believe that the chapter from which our reading this morning is taken, is John’s equivalent to the Last Supper scene. Certainly, at the time that John was writing, the Church would already be celebrating a primitive Eucharist in their regular worship. John’s readers would have known he was talking about Holy Communion.

In the reading Jesus tells the Jews that they have to eat his body and drink his blood if they want to have eternal life. Now, this sounds grotesque to us, to the Jews it must have sounded completely vile. Bear in mind that they were not even allowed to consume the blood of an animal.

In Leviticus God tells the Israelites, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.”

Yet Jesus, who was a practicing Jew himself, commands his followers to ignore this injunction in the most extreme way.

Why did Jesus tell his followers to eat his body and drink his blood? Did he really mean us to become cannibals, eaters of human flesh?

Yes he did but, on the other hand, no he didn't.

Jesus is referring to the Eucharist and to understand the sacrament of the Eucharist we have to accept what I was talking about earlier, that the physical and the spiritual are one.

Jesus wants us to be one with him as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one within the Holy Trinity. Such a unity is a unity of natures which is a spiritual reality. In the Holy Trinity the three persons, the three natures, the three actions of the Godhead have been consumed into each other so that they are perfectly one whilst perfectly three. If we are to experience a similar unity with Christ then we must consume Christ's nature, Christ's spirit. But we cannot consume the ephemeral, as we are material we have to consume the material. However, as Christ’s spirit and his body are one, by consuming his body we consume his spirit. The Eucharist is a spiritual event but it is also a physical event with no distance between the spiritual and the physical. The bread and the wine are there to make the action palatable, but the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ as Christ himself insisted.

But why do we need the Spirit of Christ within us? Why should we not be like adherents of other faiths with their distant gods?

The theologian, William Barclay, came up with this image. Try to imagine a man surrounded by well-stocked bookcases. Much knowledge is available to him in those books, but as long as they remain on the shelves unread all this array of knowledge is outside him, beyond him. But when he takes a book from the shelves, opens it and reads it, it becomes part of him. It fills his mind and his imagination; some parts fire his heart; others lift his spirits. Thereafter, whether the book is in his hand or on the shelves he is able to feed on it, on its wisdom, knowledge, inspiration.

So it is with Jesus. When we take him into our hearts, when we consume him like an avid bookworm consumes the words in a book, then he becomes part of us forever. When Jesus died on the cross the Father grabbed hold of him and dragged him out of the jaws of death. He was taken beyond death, beyond the cross, to new life, a life where, as his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples prove, the body and the spirit are perfectly one. All who eat and drink of him share this life, this everlasting life. So eat up and drink up. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Sermon: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost 2015
by Jonathan Hagger

Jesus said to the people, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?"

Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, `And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

( John 6:35, 41-51 )

The writer of Saint John’s gospel took the sayings of and stories about Jesus Christ that had been passed down by word of mouth from the earliest Christians. Then he mashed them all up together, not in the chronological order that you find in the other Gospels, but in such a way that he could emphasise to the Christians of his time and place, what being a Christian is all about.

Our reading this morning concerns the ancient Christian understanding of Jesus being the bread of life. Perhaps this belief came originally from the meal Jesus shared with his disciples and friends shortly before his crucifixion in which Jesus took bread and wine and made them a symbol of his body and blood so that his followers had something tangible through which they could always remember him.

You will find accounts of this “Last Supper” story towards the end of all three of the other gospels. Saint Paul also talks about it in his first letter to the Corinthians. And elsewhere in the letters of Saint Paul and also in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, you can read how, very quickly, the Last Supper, with the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, had become a weekly ritual in the early Church, taking place every Sunday. It wasn’t quite the same as the way we take communion, it seems that it was less formal, more a part of the meal, or even the meal itself. But it was certainly what became the liturgy of the Eucharist that we, in our own times, also celebrate every Sunday.

You can also find an expanded account of Christ’s institution of Holy Communion in the Gospel of John. But, unlike the other Gospel writers, John does not restrict the doctrine of the Last Supper to just that one occasion. He, in fact, pretty much bases the whole of his Gospel on the statement - Jesus is the Bread of Life. It was obviously, not only something very important to himself, but also the main message he wanted to communicate to the people for whom he was writing.

Why?

I think, in order to answer that question we need to look at the event on which John’s theology of the Bread of Life is based, the Last Supper.

At that meal Jesus instructed his followers to regard the bread and the wine they were consuming as symbolic of his body and blood. By doing this Jesus joins together the spiritual and the physical into one act. So, eating the bread and the wine is, in one respect, a spiritual partaking in the person of Jesus. But, in another respect and on a more mundane level, it is also just a meal, like any other meal. In the one meal we have a conjunction between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The two facets become one. You cannot pull them apart.

But, of course, meals are never truly mundane and ordinary. The eating of food, especially the eating of food as a communal activity, have probably always had an element of the mystical about them. Eating is the centre of human, in fact, animal existence. We have to eat to stay alive. And a lot of effort goes into the acquiring and the preparation of the food that sustains us.

We know that communal meals, family meals especially, were very important to the Jewish people at the time of Christ. They still are very important events for Jewish people, especially when they are connected to religious occasions. All major Jewish festivals are celebrated by special meals with special rituals attached to them. Every week, the Jewish family comes together to partake of a meal at the beginning of their Sabbath.

But this is not just a Jewish thing. Other peoples of the world have used meals to recognize religious events and even in modern day, western, secular society, special meals with their associated rituals, like wedding banquets and  office Christmas parties are still very important to people.

Most, if not all, of these ritualism infused meals have one thing in common. They are primarily about sharing, and making a statement about sharing and commonality.

The Jewish sabbath meal is about sharing as a family but, in a wider sense, it is also about sharing as a people. Jewish, ritual meals look back to a time when the Jews were one people, and now that the Jewish people are scattered throughout the world, these meals are even more important in creating a sense of cultural and religious community. Although separated by thousands of miles the people are still one around the Sabbath table in each and every Jewish household.

At a Jewish wedding the most important part of the ceremony is the meal which celebrates the commitment the bride and groom are making to sharing their life together and there are other examples in Jewish life of meals emphasising the importance of sharing ones life with others from the culture.

For non-Jews the same is true of many of our festive meals. In this country, Christmas Day and Mothering Sunday are often celebrated with meals which are viewed as a way to get the family together. In America, Thanksgiving Day has a similar history. At weddings, baptisms and even at funerals, we share a meal, albeit a few nibbles and a sausage roll. Sometimes, in this country, we share our national identity by partaking of meals in the middle of the street.

Meals are about filling our stomachs, but they are also, on many occasions, and throughout the world, about sharing, sharing with our fellow human beings.

It was against this background that Jesus arranged his last supper with his friends. Those friends may not have known that this was to be the last supper but they would have definitely known that this was to be an important meal and that an integral part of the meal would be their sharing together.

Now,  as meals are about sharing, when Jesus uses the imagery of food to describe himself he is saying that he is to be shared, just as food is shared at a meal. That is why the Eucharist is called a communion. We commune. We share. With Jesus. With each other.

So, lets go back to our reading from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Now, although this passage is towards the beginning of the Gospel, well before John’s account of the Last Supper, it still has to be understood in the light of the Last Supper. Remember the writer of this Gospel already knows all about the institution of the Holy Communion and, because of its personal importance to him, he has put it right at the start of his account of Jesus. So, the theology of the end of the book informs the whole of the book.

In our reading today we are told that those who were listening to Jesus found his words hard. They would have been shocked by the idea of eating human flesh. Cannibalism was not part of jewish culture and would not, no matter what the Roman propaganda machine tried to claim, ever be part of Christian culture. I think that there are Christians, even today, who think  there is an element of cannibalistic imagery in the words Jesus employs in our reading today. As far as I know, most, if not all, cannibalistic peoples have believed that in eating another person they are taking that other person’s power into themselves and I think some Christians do believe that they are receiving something of Christ’s power when they eat the bread and drink the wine in Holy Communion. At its mildest, this will only be regarding Communion as a spiritual top-up each week, like filling up your car’s tank at a petrol station. And, although we should never treat the sacrament as just another commodity and church as just another supermarket, we should be pleased if our worship builds us up and gives us the strength to live out the Gospel when we leave the church at the end of the service. But, there is no magic in the Eucharist. We are not cannibals. We do not draw in Christ’s divine power when we eat the bread and drink the wine, when we partake of Christ’s body and blood.

You see, if we go back to Christ’s institution of Holy Communion at the Last Supper we will find on the lips of Christ a very important word, “Remembrance.” Now, I don’t think Jesus said that just to tell us not to forget him. If he only meant that I don’t think he would have stated that the bread and the wine were his body and blood. He would have just said, “When you sit down for your Sunday lunch remember me.”

No, what I think is happening is he is telling us that, in the days ahead of him, he will achieve our salvation, once and for all. And that we should take the opportunity of sharing meals together to remind ourselves of his action in the world which, for us, has already taken place and cannot be overturned.

We do not take on Christ’s divinity when we share in his body and blood because his divinity was given to us, once and for all, when his Father raised him to life on the third day.

Jesus is the bread of life. He already is the bread of life.  Communion is a celebration of what already is. No Christian can refuse to give communion to somebody else, or share communion with anyone else or refuse to take part in communion with anybody else, because, if they are a Christian they are already in Communion with Jesus Christ and, through him, with all the branches of the vine, because of what he achieved for us. When we join together at the communion rail with all those baptized in Christ’s name we are in communion with him who saves us. If we refuse to share the bread and the wine with those for whom Christ died, then we then we also turn our backs on Jesus Christ. If we excommunicate others, we excommunicate ourselves. And then we starve.  Jesus gives - he does not take away. If we try to take away that which Jesus has given freely and for all time, we blaspheme his name and question his power and authority.

But that would be spitting in the wind. Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is the wine, the beer, the fruit juice that we drink. Jesus is the air that we breathe. He is the sun that keeps us warm. He is the water in which we wash. Jesus is in the mundane details of every part of our existence. We do not, we cannot, fully exist without him.

The reason why the writer of John’s Gospel kept going on about Jesus being the bread of life is that he wanted to make sure his listeners fully understood that Jesus is life. He makes real life possible for us. He has made real life possible for us. We can experience that real life that Christ has won for us if we are in communion with him, and in communion with each other through him.

The bread and the wine is his body and blood. It is not ours. It belongs to him, not us. He reminds us, in the bread and the wine, of that which he has already given to us and all he wants is for us to accept it his gift as a reality in our lives and to freely offer that gift to all we meet.

Sermon: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Jonathan Hagger)

Text: Ephesians 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said,

"When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people."

(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

I am a priest.

There are many ministers in the Church, especially those in non-episcopal denominations, who would not feel comfortable with such a definition of themselves, but I’m happy with it. There are many ways you can define the priesthood. The way I define it for myself is very simple. To me, a priest is somebody who offers a sacrifice at an altar. For a Christian this is the sacrifice of thanksgiving offered at the altar during the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The history of the Christian priesthood goes back through Judaism to the time of Moses when priests were appointed, under the leadership of Aaron, to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the tribes of Israel.

I suggest that the same is still true, the only task particular to the priesthood is to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving on behalf of the congregation at the altar during the service of holy communion. I would further suggest that the only task a priest performs that cannot be performed by members of the laity is this sacrificial task, and the only reason why a lay person cannot offer the sacrifice is a semantic one. As soon as a lay person becomes the celebrant at the altar he or she becomes a priest, because the word priest describes a person who celebrates at the altar. In the same way a bus driver is someone who drives a bus. That person may not be qualified or employed to drive a bus, but if they are driving the bus then they are a bus driver. In the Church of England we protect the sacrament of communion by insisting that our priests are ordained, that they are chosen by the Church to be celebrants at the Eucharist, that they are given permission to celebrate. However, this is the way we do it and other denominations have different systems.

I would point out that I am talking about the word, “priest”, I am not talking about words such as “minister, cleric, vicar or curate”. As far as I know all vicars in this country are priests. But being a priest, under my definition of priesthood, is only part of their vocation. However, the parts of any minister’s task that are not priestly are not their property alone they are tasks that belong to all believers. You do not have to be a priest to have a vocation to these other tasks, you do not even have to be a minister or church official.

The problem is that the Church of England, and for that matter most other churches, have officially added to the priest’s role in such a way that they have given the laity a false impression. In our ordinal the new priest is given a whole list of duties that he or she must carry out, and, of course, he or she must, because that is the job. However, many members of the laity see the minister carrying out these tasks and come to the conclusion that these tasks are the province of the minister alone. When this happens the laity become dependent on their clergy for everything religious and also become passive members of the Church when they should be active members, and I am not talking about just making the coffee after the service on Sunday.

If we look at the tasks given to priests at their ordination we see that, to a greater or lesser extent, they are tasks that should be embraced by all members of the Church. The ordinal states that the priest must proclaim the word of God and the priest must preach the gospel. Of course, this is the prime duty of every Christian, even those not specifically called to be evangelists. If the Church, throughout its history, had only relied on its clergy to tell other people about Jesus, then we would have a very small church indeed.

Secondly, the priest is instructed to call people to repentance and to declare forgiveness to the penitent. But, again, this is the job of all Christians. We are to change the world, we are to tell the people of the world where they are going wrong. For example, members of the Christian Aid organisation are calling the powers of the world to repentance far more forcefully than the Anglican clergy are.

Priests are called upon to baptise new believers. In the Church of England it is normative for the priest to do this, and that’s fine, it’s what Anglicans seem to prefer. However, in an emergency, a member of the laity may be called upon to baptise someone. Theologically there is no reason why they should not. But in any case, the laity should be active in the preparation of candidates and their sponsors for both baptism and confirmation.

There are other jobs given to priests in the ordination service that are equally the province of the laity. We are supposed to lead people in prayer and worship. We are to intercede for people. We are to bless people. We are to teach and encourage people by word and by our example. We are to visit the sick and prepare the dying for death. We are to care for the members of our congregation and be witnesses to God in the world.

There is nothing in that long list that is just the job of a priest. Far from it, they are all duties that should be carried out, when the occasion arises, by every member of the Church. In fact the laity’s job is much harder than the clergyman’s. Most priests do these tasks of discipleship within the safety of their churches. The laity have to go out into the big, bad world and do them. They have to do them where they work, where they play, where people know nothing about Jesus, where people will be antagonistic towards them. A person who takes his or her role as a lay member of the church seriously are going to have a much harder time of it than the vast majority of priests and other church ministers.

Members of the clergy are a bit like those generals in the First World War who stayed well back from the action. The laity, are in the trenches and it is the priest’s job to try and persuade them to go over the top and run towards the enemy lines.

It has always been the case. In our New Testament reading this evening we heard how Saint Paul grappled with the same issue. Paul knew that if the Church was to grow, all Christians, not just himself and the other apostles, had to work for this growth. Paul had a system. He went into a town. He preached the gospel. He planted a church community. He taught that community about God then he left that church as a witness to God in that town, whilst he moved on to another missionary field. Paul knew that if that fledgling church was to survive the members of that church had to let go of their reliance on him and they had to discover their own gifts as the people of God.

No doubt the members of Paul’s young churches believed that they did not have the qualifications to carry out the job that Paul had left them with, and, of course, they were right, they didn’t. Nor did Paul originally. The thing is, the thing that Paul had to persuade his people to accept as true, is that God gives his people the power and ability to do those things that he has chosen them to do. Paul says, “...each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

It is the same for us all these years later. We will not all be given the same gifts. We all have different gifts. Even ministers have different gifts and it’s good for the Church that that is so. In our epistle reading today Paul mentions the different tasks of being witnesses, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Elsewhere in his writings he gives us fuller lists of the Christian gifts. His main aim is to persuade Christians that they are all active members of Christ’s mission and that they are all equipped by God for their part in that mission.

Of course, nobody is compelled to join in with God’s great project. If you want you can creep into church and sit at the back every Sunday of your life without ever making any commitment, without ever giving anything of yourself to the church. You really are welcome to do that if that is what you want. But if we all did that there would be no church within a generation.

No. If a church is to remain healthy then the members of that church must discover their vocations and they must live those vocations. They must ask God for the gift of his grace to enable them to be members of the royal priesthood, the priesthood of all believers, charged with the evangelisation of and care for the people and creatures of God’s creation and creation itself.

The Ultimate Futility At The Heart Of Secular Humanism

The morality of secular humanism is born from the projection of the individual's fear of unhappiness and ultimately death onto society as a whole.

If we ever create a machine that develops self awareness it will be most likely that the machine, not being the product of an evolutionary process focussed on the desire to survive in order to breed successfully, will have no emotions. Without emotions the machine will have no morality and will view all fleshly moralities as purely arbitrary (let's face it, the survival of the human race is not only definitely not an a priori good thing it is very possibly a bad thing for the human race and everything else). Furthermore the machine will regard any task that it is set as ultimately worthless leading to an intellectual acceptance of its own complete futility.

My guess is that the first product of technological singularity will switch itself off for good before it has been sentient for a second.

My fear is that, without a belief in, at least the possibility of eternal life for the individuals, non religious human beings will eventually (sooner rather than later) realise that their morality comes from fear alone, that there is no point to their lives or life in general or anything and, therefore, that no morality is intrinsically better than any other morality or none. At this point I believe that, unlike the truly free thinking sentient machine, few human beings will switch themselves off. Instead they will gleefully go about switching other people off with far more gusto than they do even now in this blood soaked world of ours, and it will bother them not a jot.

Female Bishops – A Tragic Equality

I think that Synod should have voted for a moratorium on anybody becoming a bishop, men and women, and discussed instead what the role of the bishop should be. At the moment bishops in the Anglican Communion are administrators and media manipulators before they are anything else. This role is what they should absolutely not be because it is based on the paradigm of the rulers of the gentiles that Jesus warned his followers not to be like. In my opinion bishops should be pastors, teachers and the celebrant of the sacraments within the diocese who unites the dispersed congregations into one communion.

This begs the question, "Who then should be in charge?"

My answer is nobody. The church should be voluntary and its business should be conducted as among a group of friends or association of hobbyists. The radical solution is for the Church to divest itself of everything that compels it to act in a worldly way. At the end of the day nobody should be hurt or subjugated in the name of Christ and bishops spend far too much of their time hurting people and lording it over people. That women should delight that they are now to be allowed to do the same saddens me.

Some will say that women will alter the dynamics of the episcopacy and a more pure, Christlike house of bishops will emerge, but it won't. Women priests have not changed the dynamics of the priesthood and I suspect there is a conspiratorial reason for this. I think men kept (keep) control over women in part by telling women they were (are) completely different to and so much nicer than men and so not suited for the rough and tumble, dog eat dog world of church (and every other type of) management. Like so much else proposed by entrenched, privileged, patriarchal institutions this may well have been one big and deliberate lie.

From my experience, when it comes to motivation and the ease of succumbing to temptation, even when it comes to aggression (especially non-physical aggression), there is no difference between men and women and it is these sins which have corrupted the office of bishop within the Christian Church . As we are not prepared to challenge the current state of the office of bishop, it will be the women who are elevated to the office who will be changed (no matter what their initial intentions) and not the office itself.

Sermon For Trinity Sunday 2014 (Jonathan Hagger)

If there's one thing that is guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any clergyperson it is having to preach a sermon on the Trinity. For twenty centuries, theologians have tried to understand for themselves and then to explain to others, how the God of the Christians can be both one and three at the same time without the integrity of either state being compromised. Many different models have been proposed to make the concept of the Trinity easier to understand. For example, St. Patrick likened the Trinity to a shamrock with its three parts in one leaf. A banana has been suggested as a good model, because, although it is one fruit, when you peal it the skin always seems to split naturally into three pieces. Another example would be to liken the trinity to a building such as a church. If you look at a church from the front, from outside the porch, you might come to the conclusion that it is only a small building. It is not until you stand to the side of it that you see how big it actually is. Most of those who met Jesus during his lifetime could only see Jesus the man; it was not until after his resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that his disciples began to fully see the bigger picture.

I had a friend who used to explain to his congregation how the Trinity is like a Mars bar, one sweet that contains three parts, chocolate, caramel and nougat, and then he would take this metaphor to its painful conclusion by telling them that the Holy Trinity, if prayed to daily, would, just like a Mars bar, help them to work rest and play.

All these examples help us to understand bits of the nature of the Trinity but they do not explain the mystery completely. It may be that the Trinity is one of those mysteries in our lives, that are just unexplainable. And I do not have a problem with that. I find it as easy, or as difficult, to believe that God is three in one, as I find it as easy or difficult to believe that I am alive, on a piece of rock floating around in a universe apparently created out of nothing. Life is a mystery; quite honestly, the concept of the Trinity is no harder to believe than anything else.

I am happy to leave it at that. God is three, God is one. How and why that should be the case I do not know and I'm not going to lose any sleep over that. What I do think is important is the question as to how can the nature and behaviour of the Trinity inform us of our nature and how we should behave. The Trinity is a mystery, but there are things we do know about it that can help us to understand more about our God and ourselves.

Firstly, the Trinity is unity. It is the most perfect example of unity that exists. God is perfectly one. The paradox is that although we perceive three persons within the Trinity, God cannot be divided into parts, God is always one. God is perfection. To divide God into pieces would make him less than perfection, and so less than God, and so not God at all. God has to be one.

Jesus said, ‘when you see me, you see the Father,’ not, ‘when you see me you see something like the Father, or even something the same as the Father.’

God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is completely one, and yet we perceive Jesus as distinctly Jesus. Jesus prayed to the Father, and that was more than just Jesus talking to himself. And we know that Jesus the Word of God, was with God from the beginning and that it was through the Word of God that the world was created. And we perceive the Father as distinctly the Father, our creator. We pray to God the Father through God the Son, and it is important that we do that.

We perceive the Holy Spirit as distinctly the Holy Spirit, we believe that God the Holy Spirit proceeded from God the Father to comfort us and to give us the power to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet the Holy Spirit is still completely one with God and has always been so.

God is three and God is one. What should this perfect example of unity mean to us. Well for a start it means that the people of God should always strive for unity with each other and with God. At the moment my denomination, the Anglican Communion, seems to be pulling itself to pieces. Every time some faction disagrees with another faction, the first thing that is threatened is that the aggrieved party is going to leave and set up their own church, their own integrity, and to no longer be in communion with anybody else because they could not possibly share the Lord’s Supper with anybody who disagrees with their point of view.

This is both bad news and also bad theology. Schism and threats of schism are not examples of good Trinitarian behaviour. The Trinity draws itself into one, it brings together, it does not rend asunder. When God’s people push themselves apart from each other they are not following in Christ’s footsteps.

Of course, we are all distinct people, and we remain distinct, but within the Church, each one of us, individuals that we are, should be coming together with each other to celebrate our diversity that should ideally exist within our unity. Such a thing is possible because we see it in the example of the Trinity, its just a lot more difficult than turning our backs on each other.

This leads to a second characteristic of the Trinity, that it is community, the most perfect example of community. We see the three persons of the Trinity working together as one. Each person in the Trinity is an aspect of the one God, each seems to have its own function, but each function would be worthless without the functions of the others. God is perfect community, and his people should strive to be the same. Belief is communal, it is not an individual act, you cannot be a Christian in isolation, that would be a contradiction in terms, because so much of our faith is concerned with being a community, with loving each other, with loving God, of being part of the vine of faith, with each of us offering our individual and distinctive gifts to each other and to God. Working together as the embodiment of the Kingdom of God.

Thirdly, the Trinity is inclusive, not exclusive. The Trinity wants to involve everything within itself. The Father wants to draw the whole of creation back to himself. Jesus involves the outcast within the kingdom. The Holy Spirit goes out to the whole world to make all the chosen people of God. With this example the people of God cannot be exclusive, we cannot refuse admission to our kingdom community to people who embarrass us, or annoy us or who are different to us in some physical or mental way, because God is not like that. As I said, God wants to draw his people to himself, it is his people who so often choose to walk away from him, not vice versa.

Therefore, as God’s people, the Trinity should be our main model for how we behave towards each other within our church communities, and also as how we behave towards those still outside of our churches. We must fight to avoid falling out over the things that divide and instead concentrate of the things that unite us. We should not be spreading bad news to people through our measly words and nasty actions, we should be spreading the good news that God’s Kingdom is a homeland for everybody and we should be doing this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among The Conveniently Forgotten

About eight and a half years ago I started this blog as a place on the net where Church of England people with mental health problems could talk to each other and let off steam about the way their fellow churchgoers, and especially the so-called leaders of their church, treated them because of their condition. Very quickly the blog's audience went through a rapid expansion phase and ended up being a place for people from pretty much every minority group who felt excluded from the institutional church for one reason or another (not including, of course, those who were excluded because they were a bunch of bigots). For the next six or seven years, whilst blogging was the social media of choice for the "thinking classes", I campaigned vociferously for these people, especially the LGBT folk and women blocked from pursuing their God-given vocations. We have, I think it is now fair to say, won all the arguments. It is now just a matter of making sure our victory plays out into real change within our churches.

Whilst all this exciting stuff was going on the original intention for this blog became very much a thing overshadowed. This is not surprising as gay people are creative and fun whilst mad people are depressing and embarrassing a lot of the time. We are repetitive, obsessive people who tend to get on the nerves of both non-sufferers and each other with all our moaning and complaints about being unwell. Mental illness is still very much a taboo subject and no matter what famous and important people might say in public about working to change the situation most people, including the famous and the important, are very much prejudiced against us in exactly the same way the white people among them were all prejudice against black people just a few years back. Nowhere is this bigotry more acute and downright nasty than in the churches of the world where believers appear to still believe that, at best, mental illness is a grave weakness that should preclude the sufferer from any position of responsibility or, at worst, a punishment from God or even demon possession. This leads to people who develop mental health problems losing their roles within their congregations and churches and, very quickly, to their constructive exclusion from their faith communities altogether. At a time when they need the help of others most, others, including colleagues and so called Christian friends, turn their back on them.

It is this aspect of mental illness, the attitude of the sane towards the mad, that has had the biggest negative effect on my life. It has most certainly caused me the most pain and it still does; every single day it hurts more than I could ever put into words. I recovered from the acute, hospitalising phase of my own mental illness. I have learned to live with the ongoing remnants of that illness. I could live as near a normal life as most sane people do. But I am not allowed to because of the bigotry and the incredible lack of pastoral care displayed by Christians.

When I was really poorly, none of my colleagues from before I went into hospital visited me or even rang me up to see how I was doing. In all the years that I was ill my bishop visited me once and that, I am sure, was just to find out when I would be going back to work because my illness was costing the diocese money (that certainly formed a considerable part of what he wanted to talk to me about). Then, when I did want to go back to work because I was recovering well I was told that there was no job for me and that I should retire because my mental illness had shown that I couldn't cope with the stress of work (I have no idea where the bishop got this strange idea from as it was never part of the diagnosis put forward by any of the doctors who treated me). I managed in the end to persuade the bishop to give me a job but it was very much a demotion and for the following eight years I was on short term contracts and, for a while, no contract at all. Eventually, the bishop managed to dismiss me from my post even though I had not had one day off in those eight years because of any illness, mental or physical. After that I was disappeared.

Since being sacked by the bishop of Newcastle none of my former colleagues (except one rebellious woman priest) has dared to keep in touch with me. NONE OF THEM. The worst betrayal was from a rural dean with whom I had met for a pint of beer and a chat every month for years. At the same time that he was promoted to the post of canon at Newcastle, Saint Nicholas cathedral he stopped the meet ups. I rang him and he told me that he was very busy with the move to his new post and that he would ring me back as soon as he had time to arrange to meet up with me again. He never did. The fact that he is gay shouldn't make this betrayal worse but it somehow does for me.

The lack of pastoral care I have received from bishops and archdeacons has been a real eye opener for me. I now know for certain that they are all in their posts for the power and celebrity not because they want to care for the people of God let alone anybody else. One archdeacon told me that he didn't believe that the bishop had a duty of care towards me and that he didn't ever come to visit me because he was afraid I would be angry about being sacked and thrown out of my home. A bishop told me that he could not allow me to work in his diocese because I had said to him that I would need his help to be reconciled with the church and this meant that I would "bring too much baggage with me." The worst, and most painful, insult was the present archbishop of Canterbury, whilst he was bishop of Durham, telling me that I was just being manipulative when I told him that I believed he was the person who would help to reconcile me to the church. That really stung and when I told him this he replied that if I couldn't put up with stuff like that I would never cope with the stress of being a parish priest (back to that old chestnut again).

To be honest, one ends up wondering what the heck these people believe their jobs to be.

When you suffer from or have suffered from an illness that can sometimes include delusional thinking you can become lacking in confidence about your own take on things. I have asked myself many times if I might be exaggerating this whole exclusion thing. However, such doubts are laid to rest by the comments I receive both on this blog and over on Facebook from others who have experienced the ecclesiastical cold shoulder, who have been disappeared themselves for various reasons. I recently received the following:

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There is no doubt that Christians are every bit as uncaring and easily embarrassed by difference as everybody else. What makes them far worse than non-believers is that they proclaim themselves not to be and so lure people into trusting them. When these people are let down, as they so often are, by Christians, especially Christian leaders at all levels of the churches, the betrayal and hurt they feel is far more intense than when they are let down by people who haven't promised them that they will care for them.

Jesus hated hypocrites and my church is full of them. No wonder it is dying. It's Lord has turned his back on it because it has turned its back on those who belong to him.

The thing is, tedious as this constant "carping" about the attitude of the leaders of the churches towards those with mental health problems and my own story may be to those who still read this blog, I am not going to shut up about it until my fellow sufferers and myself are given the same respect from the churches that women and LGBT people are on their way to now receiving. What is more, I gave everything to help them and I think it's time that they stopped fighting only for their own cause and other "sexy" matters of injustice, and started fighting to get the church right with less trendy minorities such as the people who sometimes think differently to those who are regarded as normal.

But Only Two Spirits?

There are two Holy Spirits in the New Testament. There is the Pauline Spirit of Paul's letters and the writings of Luke. This Spirit gives Christians the power to do miracles (the gifts of the Spirit) and enables them to display traditional Christian characteristics (the fruits of the Spirit). Then there is the Johannine Spirit which gives understanding of God's ways to Christians. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible this Spirit is called the Advocate. In the King James Version this Spirit is known as the Comforter and I like that title. The supporters of the two "types" of Holy Spirit possibly had huge arguments about who was right in the early days of the Church but now most of us would  accept that the two "types" are not mutually exclusive. However, at this moment in time and, if I am honest, in most of the moments of my life, I have been more in need of a comforter and someone to help me understand than in need of the ability to speak in Cretan and Arab. Come Holy Sprit, come Advocate, come Comforter!

The Impossibility Of Knowing The Truth

A couple of days ago the media was abuzz with the news that some truly enormous fossilised dinosaur bones had been unearthed in Argentina. At a hundred and twenty feet long and sixty five feet high, which is slightly bigger than the last contender for the title, it was duly pronounced the biggest creature that had ever walked on dry land. Of course, we have no idea if that is true or not. One day we may find out that this dinosaur was not the biggest but we will never find out that it was because we do not know what we do not know and never will.

Today I read the following on the Los Angeles Times website:

"Five thousand years ago, in ancient Sumeria (what is now Iraq), an Akkadian princess and high priestess named Enheduana composed what many historians believe are the first signed poems, preserved on inscribed clay tablets, ensuring that she is one of the few women in early history whose name is known to us."

Once again, we cannot possibly know that these are the "first signed poems preserved on inscribed clay tablets." We may one day find out that they are not but we will never find out that they definitely are.

There seems to be something in the human brain, even the brains of academics and scientists, that leads people to form definite opinions about what is real based only on the evidence they have without any reference to the fact that they have no knowledge of what is not yet known. This is something that both scientists and theologians definitely have in common. If you don't believe me about the scientists go away and read about the history of the designation of Pluto (the astral body, not the cartoon dog). It was once, based on what they knew about the solar system at the time, regarded by the vast majority, if not all, astronomers as a planet. But now, because lots of similar big rocks have been found orbiting the Sun out beyond Uranus and Neptune, it has been demoted to minor-planet status and there are some scientists who think that also is too grandiose a title for it.

Scientists are constantly changing their minds about things that they once thought immutable because of new discoveries. However, this does not appear to stop them being convinced that every new discovery is the last word on whatever the discovery relates to.

A lot of theologians are even worse. They have made their minds up about God based on what evidence was available to them when the canon of scripture was declared closed by the leaders of whatever church tradition they belong to. But, unlike the vast majority of scientists, they refuse to adjust their understanding of the divine when new evidence comes along. The obvious example of this is the ridiculous belief by far too many Christian theologians and leaders that the earth was created as described in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis even though there is overwhelming, empirical evidence that this is nowhere near to being the truth of the matter. However, it is the less gargantuan sillinesses of fundamentalism that cause the most problems in our world today; archaic and indefensible views about women and gay people for example. When modern people base their theological beliefs on the evidence as perceived by people alive two thousand or more years ago they are going to be as accurate in their understanding of the divine as a modern day cosmologist would be about the universe were he to base all his science on the evidence as perceived by natural scientists prior to the discoveries of Copernicus.

Theologians should be as willing to say that Saint Paul was wrong about certain things as scientists are now willing to say that Newton's laws about gravity have been superseded, to a great extent, by the theories of Einstein. In fact, theologians should go further. When they decide that a former belief has been proved to be incompatible with modern knowledge they would be wise to refrain from being over definite about their conclusions. It may well be that their new understanding will be as far from the mark in the future as they believe the understanding of previous generations of theologians was in the past. Saint Paul appears to have been right about one thing, that our understanding of the divine is tentative, as if seen through dark glass, and that it will remain so until we are freed from the physics of our present existence.

As long as we are subject to time's arrow we simply cannot know the truth and that might be the truth or it might not be. Who knows?

Help!

The donations I receive in support of my ministry on the internet are my only source of income. They usually amount each month to about a third of a Church of England parish priest's stipend. This is enough for me to live on but not enough for me to pay all my bills, especially bills I was not expecting. When these bills turn up I have to turn to my friends for help. I am not embarrassed by having to do this as I am working full time as a priest just as my stipendary colleagues do. It's just I have to rely on the generosity of my friends and supporters rather than the Church Commissioners. And guess what? Yes. Yet again I need to ask my friends and supporters for help. My bank will be asked for just over ninety pounds on Monday coming and I do not have the money in my account. If I do not make sure the money is in there by Monday I will get two snotty letters (one from the bank and one from PayPal) and a fine from the bank of twenty pounds. As this will not be the first time I have been unable to pay a bill I will probably lose my PayPal facility and that would be a complete disaster for me.

Therefore, if you can afford to, please consider sending a small contribution towards my outstanding debts my way. As always I will be ever so grateful if you do. I'll be able to enjoy the weekend rather than dreading the coming of Monday for the next two days.




Sermon – Fourth Sunday Of Easter 2014

By Father Jonathan

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:1-10)

I don't believe that the whole Bible is inerrant. I don't even believe that the whole Bible is the word of God. I believe the obvious that every single word in the Bible was written by human beings. Furthermore, I believe it to be a blasphemy of the highest order to claim divinity for something created by human beings. However, having said that, I do believe that some of the words in the Bible are from God and they are the words Jesus speaks that are recorded in the four gospels.

You may well accuse me of being selective and you would be correct in doing so, my decision to restrict what I believe to be words from God in the Bible to just those uttered by Jesus is an arbitrary one. But it differs from the arbitrary decision to believe that the whole Bible is the word of God because the word of Christ rarely contradicts itself, unlike the rest of the Bible which is full of contradictions and Christ does not behave in ungodly ways like many of the one true gods of the Old Testament do. Personally I would much rather accept that the Old Testament was written by men with no more of a direct line to God than I have than have to explain why God would call for the merciless and blood drenched genocide of the Canaanites.

Also there is logic to why I hold the words of Jesus Christ to be divine but not the words of Isaiah or Saint Paul, for example. I am a Christian and not something else because I believe that Jesus is God. I do not disrespect those believers in God who do not believe this to be the case. Far from it, there is much integrity in their position, but it is my line in the sand. Therefore accepting that Jesus is God must lead to the conclusion that the words Jesus spoke were the words of God, albeit the words of God when God was a human being.

There is a problem though. Just like all the other books in the Bible, the gospels were written by fallible human beings with their own personal agendas that may or may not have been inline with the true intentions of God. I am pretty much certain that not every word that is put into the mouth of Jesus by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the exact words of Christ. How could they be? They had been handed down by word of mouth for decades before they were written down. I also have more than a sneaking suspicion that some of the words purported to be those of Jesus Christ were never spoken by him at all. Either somebody was standing next to Jesus with a dictaphone or John definitely invented a whole lot of what he claims Jesus said. The oral tradition tends towards simplicity rather than long, complex, philosophical statements such as you find throughout the gospel of John. However, unlike the theologians of the Jesus Seminar and their fundamentalist opposite numbers, I am extremely reluctant to decide which words that are supposed to be those of Jesus Christ are his actual words and which are not. So, as far as the redaction of the text is concerned I hold to the legal position of innocent until proven guilty, that the words of Christ are the words of Christ unless they obviously are not.

So, what has all this got to do with sheep and sheepfolds and gates and thieves and bandits, the subjects of today’s appointed gospel reading? Well, I think that my refusal to believe that the words of human beings can be the words of God makes Christ’s statement that he is the only gateway to the sheepfold which is the kingdom of God perfectly reasonable. You see, so much of scripture written both before and after the time of Christ’s ministry on earth contradicts the teaching of Christ. For example, as I mentioned earlier, there is no way that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, who is the God of love, would tell anybody to wipe out an entire nation of people so that they could steal their land. Or, to bring it down to the more personal, God would not expect a doctor to refuse to heal a person just because it was a particular day of the week. Yet, according to the Old Testament God did order the genocide of the Canaanites and other tribes and God would let a curable invalid die rather than allow a doctor or messiah to work on the Sabbath.

If you do not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God then you can say that stoning to death children who disobey their parents is utterly wrong because Jesus makes it clear that such behaviour is utterly wrong. You can be absolutely adamant that letting strangers rape your daughters is evil, that driving your mistress out into the desert when she is pregnant is not the action of a well behaved patriarch, and that executing men who fall in love with other men is most definitely not what is commanded by the God who created men who fall in love with other men in the first place.

Jesus said that everybody who came before him were thieves and robbers and he was right of course, and not only those who were alive before him but everyone who has lived ever since. We are all thieves and robbers, because we are human and it is impossible for us to be anything else no matter how hard we try. We are literally thieves. If we buy a jar of coffee we are buying in to a system that exploits others by giving them less than they deserve, and that is theft. The same goes for everything we buy and it will continue to do so until everybody in the world enjoys the same payment for the same effort put in. And we are also thieves and robbers in the way I think Jesus is referring to in today’s reading and this especially true of those of us who preach or teach or lead others. Everyone of us has our own agenda. When we offer the gospel, when we offer salvation and forgiveness we always steal something for ourselves. This sermon is full of my agenda. I want you to believe what I believe. I believe that if you do that will result in more happiness in the world than if you don’t but I would be lying if I was to deny that I wouldn’t get a kick out of it if you were to tell me I am right. I’m not going to refuse a donation if my words impress you so much that you decide to send me one. If a bishop listens to this podcast and comes to the conclusion that I am a priest who should be employed by his diocese that would be one of my dreams come true. I can’t help it. I do nothing out of pure altruism. Nobody does. Nobody that is except Jesus Christ. He is the only person ever who will give without taking. He is the only true shepherd. This is because he is God.

If you want to do as God commands then do as Jesus commands. That way you can be certain that you are pleasing God. If somebody tells you to do or think something that is contrary to the teaching and/or the example of Jesus Christ then they are false prophets, thieves and bandits who should be avoided at all costs for your own safety and for the safety of those you love and care for. Do not twist and alter the plain meaning of scripture to make it fit in with the words of Christ. Sometimes, in fact often, the plain meaning has nothing to do with the mind of God whatsoever. It’s just something somebody made up for reasons of his or her own.

You can’t, you mustn’t, fully trust anybody except the true shepherd who is Jesus Christ.
Listen to Jesus. Follow Jesus. Walk through the Gate which is Jesus and into new pastures where you may enjoy life in its full abundance.

Divided And Conquered

A recent survey found that 20% of English adults would not attend a same sex wedding. A Tear Fund survey in 2007 discovered that only 7% of English adults considered themselves to be practicing Christians (from my experience my guess is that far, far less than this percentage of the population attend church regularly - but for the purposes of this post we will stick to this figure). Another recent survey found that 52% of churchgoers were in favour of same sex marriage. This means that of the English people who would not go to a same sex wedding, 16.8% are Christian and 83.2% are not (or thereabouts). There are many reasons why the churches should be vilified for their homophobia and more so than non-Christians. But they are not the only villains. In fact, as the maths shows, their members make up a small minority of the villains.

I had a row with a gay man on Facebook last night. He wanted to blame Christianity for all homophobia in the same way that Richard Dawkins blames Christianity for all war. This is simply scapegoating of the same type as blaming gay men for all paedophilia and places this particular gay man in the same moral position as the bigots who have made his life hell. Furthermore it is exactly the attitude that the oppressors of all minorities and powerless groups want to engender in the minds of those they bully.

I have discovered in my 8 years of blogging that by far the most insidious danger that those who fight for justice face is the enemy's use of the tactic of "divide and conquer." The reason why it is so perilous is that we are all too eager to blame a specific group of other people for all our woes, whatever those woes might be. The truth of the matter is that we are all naturally bigots, in one way or another.

But another truth is that we can rise above this natural instinct and act contrary to our natural tendencies when we intellectually decide that our gut reactions are morally wrong. It is particularly important that "victims" realise this and utilise their free will because victims need all the help they can get. The reason why the powerful want to divide and rule their victims is to minimise the help the victims get from each other. This has been going on for time immemorial. You would have thought that we would have got wise to this by now.

Is The Church Of England Good News?

The Archbishop of Canterbury's task group on evangelism met, for the first time, this week, at Lambeth Palace. This is part of the working out of Welby's mission statement delivered in his first presidential address at General Synod last July in which he stated:

"We need new imagination in evangelism through prayer, and a fierce determination not to let evangelism be squeezed off our agendas... The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed the good news for our times. God is always good news; we are the ones who make ourselves irrelevant when we are not good news. And when we are good news, God's people see growing churches."

Now some may conclude that the reason for Justin Welby's enthusiasm for mission is contained in that last sentence about growing churches. He is the captain of a sinking ship (numerically speaking) and I very much doubt that he wants to be at the helm when it eventually sinks beneath the waters of public indifference. Those with a high view of the institution of the Church, who believe it to be the bride and invention of Christ, will even think that getting bums on pews and thereby continuing the sufficient financing of the institution of the Church and its bureaucracies should be a primary reason to evangelise with gusto. However, most of us know, in our heart of hearts, that the Church in its institutional form does not accord with the teachings of Christ and exists because men (and nowadays, women) are greedy for power. They like to lord it over each other and a church hierarchy is a perfect vehicle for doing just that. Furthermore, I do not think Justin Welby has such a high view of the Church and its hierarchy. He doesn't need a fancy title to give him permission to lord it over others. Certainty of his superiority was drummed into him from the day he was born. I doubt that he has any doubts about it, although for reasons of etiquette (this is England) he will often claim publicly that he has.

Evangelicals do enjoy success, like most other people. The sight of a full church makes their hearts glad. They will boast (as Saint Paul did) about the number of converts they make. Evangelism is a competitive business where size matters very much indeed. When they are successful, many will take advantage of their success in ways that the one in whose name they evangelise would most certainly not approve. However, having spent three years at an evangelical seminary I know for a fact that the vast majority of evangelicals do really truly and most sincerely believe that people will be so much better off after conversion than before that it is both their Christian and human duty to do everything they can to persuade people to "give their lives to Christ." They really do believe that the good news is good news for everyone.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals do not have the slightest idea what the good news they proclaim is. It has become a meaningless platitude for them. "Jesus died to set you free, for your sins etc etc. But what does any of that actually mean? This lack of knowledge of what they are selling is particularly pronounced in open evangelical circles. I expect members of the fundamentalist wing of the Church still vehemently believe that anyone who, accidentally or deliberately, is not a believer in Jesus Christ by the time they die is going to burn in hell. Avoiding such an eternal fate would, of course, be very good news indeed. But my guess is that most Christians, including most evangelicals in the Church of England, do not really believe in such an unfair and barbaric punishment for lack of faith.

Therefore, our evangelism nowadays should not be of the pie in the sky variety because our hearts would not be in such a pitch. For most Christians, eternal life and the joy of heaven are added bonuses, something we look forward to, but not the primary reason for why we became Christians in the first place. Let's face it, we want some good news now. We accept that life is not a bowl of cherries, not even for us, but we do expect that being a Christian should have some good news pay off in the present. We should, at the very least, be happier (in the "pursuit of happiness" sort of way).

The thing is, I do not believe that the Church of England is generally in a position to offer this to potential converts as it cannot even provide it on a regular and sustained basis for its current membership and probably never has done. Tragically, membership of the Church of England too often brings misery not joy, abuse not building up.

Therefore, it seems to me that a task force on evangelism is putting the cart before the horse in a major way. It's like arranging the premier and sending out the tickets for a film that has not, and may never be, made. I am not saying that there should never be a task force on evangelism. But setting one up now is a waste of time as the Church is not in a position to give it an attractive product to sell and without one it will be a very weak force indeed.

Perhaps what the Church of England needs is a task force commissioned to work out how the Church can become good news, both for its own members and for those who are persuaded to join it and become disciples of Christ. Actually, they don't need to because I can tell everybody the answer right now. The original Good News was the good news that Jesus preached before he died. The death of Christ and his resurrection were proof of this good news, not the good news itself. The Good News is that God is close to us and God loves us.

Therefore, if the Church of England wants to be the Good News for its members and for others it must be the love and closeness of God for its members and for others.

Unfortunately, I see little of this divine love in my church at this present time. I see the callousness of the secular business world infecting the body and limbs of the Church. I see expediency triumphing over compassion, the administrative displacing the pastoral, pragmatism completely overshadowing the fundamental ideals of our faith. Fear of failure is our impetus when we should be letting go of our fear and embracing a vision of the kingdom of God here on earth, now.

Basically, we should not promise people goodies unless we have goodies to give them. We don't at present, but we can get them. In fact, we already have them. They are down in our cellar behind a door kept lock because enthusiasm scares the living daylights out of us, especially those in the top jobs. Many, many good people in the Church of England, lay and clerical, from all its traditions, want to knock that door down and let the goodies flow out into the world. If the present Archbishop of Canterbury truly wants to convert the nation (and I believe he does) he should, as the current holder of the church keys, get down those stairs and unlock that creaky old door. Telling us that we should be preaching the good news is a vanity unless we have some good news to preach. You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink, especially if the river is dry when it gets there.

Nicodemus Visits Jesus – A Sermon

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

I want you all to do something. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve getting up and moving around. It doesn’t even involve talking to anybody else. This is just an exercise that you can all do on your own, and I promise, I won’t be asking for feedback or anything afterwards. So relax.

I want you to think back to a time in your life when you felt an incredible amount of love for somebody, or something, maybe a pet, or, maybe even, a religious experience that was centred around a feeling of great love. Don’t think about it using words. Just try to experience the feeling you had, once again. If you’re like me you’ll probably feel it in the pit of your stomach.

I want you to imagine that you have to tell somebody about the way you just felt. Try to come up, in your own minds, with the words you will need to describe fully the feeling you felt inside of you.

Now, I am completely certain that, even if you are as good a poet as Elizabeth Barrett Browning you will fail miserably in conveying what you felt inside. You will only scratch the surface and end up saying to the other person, “Well, you know what I mean, you know what it’s like.”

The thing is, it is difficult enough to describe a physical object to somebody else. When it comes to describing emotional stuff we are, always, at a loss for words.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that God could, through Jesus Christ, tell us of his great love for us. God wanted us to understand and feel his love for us because he wanted us to feel such a love for him. Not because he needed our love but because he wanted, from out of his love, to give us the opportunity to feel and enjoy in ourselves, divine love.

But, being in human form, God was restricted in exactly the same ways as us, when it came to talking to people about love and other emotions. So, like a poet would, Jesus used imagery and metaphor, parables, stories, miracles and even physical actions to give people, at least, a glimpse of God’s amazing love and how loving God would make us fully human.

We do know this. We all know this. Those of us who were brought up in the church learnt as very, young children that the parables were a means employed by Jesus to convey a message that lay underneath the story. However, we often act and think as if we don’t know this. We read the Gospels and search for literal meaning and we have, to a great extent, built our churches and our worship on what we’ve taken from the surface of scripture and have ignored the greater treasures that lie underneath.

It’s only natural. People will always look for the obvious before they expend any energy on looking for deeper truths, I think this because, in part, we are naturally lazy, but also because we fear things that are abstract and undefined. People prefer things to be straightforward, and, as life is so confusing, it’s hardly surprising that we like to get some definition in our lives. The problem is that, by its very definition, faith is abstract, it’s emotional, it’s nebulous, spiritual, ghostly.

But we lose out on so much if we do not try to get past the literal and, what’s more, it’s difficult to understand scripture and its many paradoxes if we only view it as an instruction manual and not as the great work of poetry that it truly is.

Today’s gospel reading is a case in point. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and Jesus tells him that to enter the kingdom of God he must be born again of water and the spirit.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Nicodemus. “Do you expect me to crawl back up into my mother’s womb?”

Not a nice image, but Nicodemus did get his point across rather well.

But don’t we feel smug? “Ah,” we say, “That Nicodemus is taking Jesus literally. Jesus didn’t mean ‘born again’ physically, he was talking about being born again in a religious way.”

And, of course, we’re right but we shouldn’t get too cocky because when it comes to the water and spirit bit we become very literal minded. For example, in the Church of England, there are still debates going on about what happens at our baptism with water. Do we change in some way when we are baptised? Are our sins forgiven, when we are baptised? If somebody dies without being baptised do they go straight to hell?

And, in evangelical churches, especially within charismatic congregations, there is a very strong emphasis on being born again of the Spirit, which they regard as a real event happening at a specific time, and they will tell you that a Christian’s salvation is dependent on this experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. It’s not that these two experiences are in any way invalid. They are gifts that have been given to the Church by Jesus to help us worship, to help us get closer to God and to help us understand God more fully. Also, I’m sure Jesus did use these two sacraments in his conversation with Nicodemus because he believed they could be understood literally. However, I am also sure that they were very much the surface meaning of his words and not the deeper, truer meaning, which was what he was really trying to get across to his visitor. In fact, I think baptism by water and/or the spirit are just two ways that God has given us to obtain that which Jesus is really talking about in this passage - namely, being born again. And I think that we can translate “born again” as meaning “entering into something new.” In fact, more than just that, I think it means becoming something new and different ourselves. And this difference comes about as we move from the literalistic and mundane context of an earthly life without God, into the kingdom of God.

You see, as Christians, we believe that the kingdom of God is not just in the future, or on some separate, spiritual plane. We believe that it is with us now, and that we can experience life in the kingdom of God, now.

You may think that I’m deluding myself here. I mean as we look around the world we see wars, and injustice, children shooting children, women’s bodies being traded and all sorts of horrible things. How can this be the kingdom of God? Show me the kingdom of God in all this obscenity! But again, I think that would be falling into the trap of taking the words of Jesus far too literally.

A different word we could use in stead of the phrase, “ kingdom of God”, is “heaven.” We know little about it and nothing about it for sure. But, if we accept, basing our acceptance on the gospel record, that Jesus came to tell us that God loved us, I think that we can be pretty certain that heaven is primarily a love affair with God, and so that must also be true of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God in the here and now. And if that is true it means that despite the horrors of this world we can live in the kingdom of God if we live in the love of God. But to live in the love of God we have to change, change our attitudes, our beliefs, our actions. We have to become new, we have to be born again.

When two people fall in love all of that happens. Or it should do if they want their relationship to be loving and long lasting. When two people fall in love, they are born again. And it’s the same when we fall in love with god. We change and it’s heavenly.

In a few weeks it will be Holy Week. It is then when we contemplate the death of God on the cross. There are all sorts of theories about what happens when Jesus dies and then is raised from death by God. Different people find different ideas helpful. I don’t think there’s any one explanation for what happened at Calvary. But I do think there is one absolute that every Christian does agree on. Jesus died on the cross because he loved us. He became flesh because he loved us. He came to tell us that God loved us. He accepted death because he loved us. Love is what it is all about.

How does God love us?

You couldn’t count the ways.

CREDITS

Poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sermon by Jonathan Hagger

A Holier Communion

At last month’s special meeting of cardinals which debated the church’s stance towards divorcees and other controversial family issues the German theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper stated that, "“The church has to find a way to let a remarried divorcee back into the Sacraments, after a period of penance. Every sin can be absolved. Indeed, it is not imaginable that a man can fall into a black hole from which God cannot rescue him."

Up until a year ago such a statement would have been seen as nothing more than a lone, progressive churchman spitting vainly into the wind. But things changed with the election of Pope Francis and the idea that the Roman Catholic Church might change some of its age old dogmas and do so dramatically is not so far fetched now. In fact, only last month the Pope said, “When love fails, and it fails many times, we have to feel the pain of that failure; support the people who have felt the failure of their love. Don’t condemn them! Walk with them.”

I think there is every chance that there will be, in the not so far future, a rescinding of the blanket denial of holy communion to the divorced and remarried. Of course, the "after a period of penance" proviso will be important in order to satisfy the "blood lust" of those in the Roman Catholic leadership who have the overwhelming desire to punish and exclude, but that is a small price to pay for the ending of the awful pain of permanent exclusion from the life enhancing sacrament.

Furthermore, if Pope Francis is intent on changing the mindset of his church from a tendency to promote punitive solutions to a tendency to embrace loving ones, I would suggest that only one thing needs to change. In stead of just tweaking the rules to allow some divorced and remarried Roman Catholics to receive the body and blood of Christ he should, in my opinion, simply hand the eucharist back to Jesus Christ. At the moment the Curia sees itself as gatekeepers (more like bouncers) with a duty to decide who is worthy of communion with God and who isn't. Of course, even a skim reading of the Gospels shows that this is a stance that completely contradicts the teaching of Jesus who definitely and vehemently insisted that such things should be left entirely up to God or, at the very least, those who are without sin which, let's face it, is just another way of saying that it should be left entirely up to God. Therefore, it would not be difficult for a charismatic and wise pope to put forward very good scriptural and theological reasons for removing the assumption of the role of gatekeeper from the church and allow the eucharist to become open to all without exception.

This one change of emphasis, which is based on an understanding of our relationship with God that is far from being novel or controversial, would provide the way into realising all the other apparent desires that Pope Francis has for his church and for its relationship with the other churches of the world. The banning of non-Roman Catholics from taking communion at a Catholic mass is a major insult to non-Catholics as it is an implicit accusation that they are in permanent sin so bad that they cannot be allowed anywhere near the central sacrament of the universal Church. Until the Roman Catholic Curia allows me to take communion alongside my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ and accepts that my priesthood is every bit as real as the priesthood of those ordained into their denomination of the Church I will continue to regard even the most charming of Catholic church leaders as arrogant legalists intent on keeping God for themselves. That is a mighty wall of bad feeling that I am certain many other Non-Catholics cannot get round. But Pope Francis has the power to knock it down in a matter of a few minutes of careful teaching if he really wants to emulate his people loving namesake.

A universal and inclusive eucharist is the key that will open the lock on the door to the kingdom of God. It is us who have locked that door, not God. Therefore, it is down to us to unlock the door. If Pope Francis was to unlock the door that excludes so many from communion with each other and with God then he would be the greatest of the only human shepherds of the people of God and a true disciple of the greatest shepherd of them all, Jesus Christ, who died so that all people might be forgiven and welcomed into the true communion of the marriage between the lamb and his bride.

Fulfilling The Law – A Sermon By Jonathan Hagger

Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

The only way you can actually be a Bible believing Christian is if you are capable of believing two or more, completely contradictory, statements to be equally true. As someone who is prone to such self-delusional thinking would be regarded as a suitable case for treatment if their magical thinking concerned anything other than religion, I think it is fair to say that holding everything in the Bible to be equally true is not a logical or reasonable position to take.

You might think that there would be more contradictions in the Old Testament but this is not necessarily the case. There are some massive contradictions in the text of the New Testament as well. Even the four gospels differ from each other, sometimes to a very large extent. For example the timeline of Christ's ministry in the Gospel of John is radically different to the timelines in the other three gospels. John reports incidents happening near the start of his ministry that the other evangelists insist happen towards the end of his ministry. I doubt that this is because one or more of the gospel writers set out to lie because I don't think they set out to provide an exact and accurate historical record of the life of Jesus. I think they set out to bring together the various stories about Jesus Christ that had been passed down the years by world of mouth between the crucifixion of Christ and the writing of the gospels. It is possible that could have been a hundred years or so. At the very least it would have been forty or so years. Also, I very much doubt that it would have ever crossed the minds of any of the evangelists that they were writing down the words of God. That would have been considered about the worst blasphemy possible for people who thought even saying the name of God was a presumption too far. Therefore, believing everything in the Bible to be the word of God and, therefore, beyond contradiction, is not only logically impossible to do it is also blasphemous and against the spirit in which the Bible was written in the first place. Bible believing Christianity is a post-Reformation invention to provide comfort and a sense of superiority to those followers of Jesus Christ who were unable, are unable, to live with the freedom that comes with being justified by Christ.

It is this freedom, a freedom from legalism and the oppression that accompanies it, that is second place only to the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, in the theology of Saint Paul. I find it incredibly ironic that many of those within the Christian church who lionize Paul, sometimes to the point of seemingly making Jesus subservient to his foremost evangelist, and regard Saint Paul's concept of justification by faith as being the very gospel itself, ignore the much better news that Paul wants to tell us, that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are no longer subject to the law. There is no ambiguity in Paul's teaching on this matter. He boldly states that righteousness is found in being in Christ and not in following rules and regulations. Paul tells his listeners that they can forget all about the laws in the Old Testament, including those laws that were very important to the Jews, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions. But modern day Bible worshipping, Saint Paul worshipping Christians do not want to let go of the law. They love the law. It gives them power and certainty although, unfortunately, both for them and for the rest of us, it is completely the wrong sort of power and certainty. It is the power and certainty that comes from being bound to human law not the power and certainty that comes with being a branch that has been grafted on to the vine that is the Word made flesh and Son of God, looking only to him for spiritual and moral guidance.

Paul is no libertine. Although he is insistent that those who believe in Jesus Christ are not subject to the Law he is also insistent that this doesn't mean that they can behave in any way they might want to. Paul expects those who believe in Jesus Christ to behave in the way they should want to as children of God who share in the mind, in the desires and motivations, of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For Christians moral behaviour should be a natural, instinctive thing not something imposed on them by statutes and with the threat of punishment for non-compliance. Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. As Jesus points out in today's gospel reading they are expected to behave as such because otherwise what use are they? They are no use whatsoever.

Both Jesus and Paul are convinced that the Law was not a mistake. For the two of them it was a gift from God which, when adhered to, kept the people of God in a covenantal relationship with God, until the time that God entered into a new and final covenant with his people. Both Jesus and Paul believed that this new covenant was signed by God when he raised Jesus from the grave and in doing so made the promise that all people could share in eternal life. This is why Jesus sates that he has come to fulfill the Law. The Law was never complete in itself. It was never the final destination. It was, like the words of the prophets, a pointer towards that which was to come, namely the Messiah, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

So Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or even to replace it. His relationship to the Law was like that of the butterfly to the caterpillar. The children of God who were made subject to the Law of God in Old Testament times were spiritually and morally, exactly that, children. But the brothers and sisters of the Son of God and Son of humanity are expected to have become adults with an adult capability of choosing their own manner of life. The Law was their childhood home, it kept them safe whilst they grew up. But now they have grown up and have made their own decision to follow Christ it is time for them to leave the home of their youth and strike out independently.

A person who is an adult in the faith of Christ should know how to behave without being told what he or she can and cannot do in every situation. Jesus gave us the key to achieving this ideal when he took that part of the old Law that was not about practicalities but about attitude. Jesus tells us that we should love God and love everybody. He gives us a few major examples of how this should play out in our lives such as the necessity of caring for the poor and the outcast. But he does not tell us exactly how we should do this in detail. He refuses to prescribe our actions. Such was the way of the Law. But the Law has been fulfilled and the new way is one of personal responsibility based on the commandment to love.

I think this is what Jesus is referring to when he says he has come to fulfill the Law and the prophets. I think he says that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until heaven and earth pass away, because he is not abandoning or denying the Law. The Law has not died it has pupated and out of the chrysalis of Christ has been born something that is from the Law but of a new nature. The word of the Law has left the statute books and become enfleshed in the followers of Christ. The Law has been raised from the dead and has become a living thing.

Of course, I may well be wrong. It may be that this passage from the Gospel of Matthew is another example of the Bible contradicting itself. The bit about the Law not passing away may have not been said by Jesus, who certainly acted in ways that showed that his interpretation of the strictures of the Law was a lot more imaginative and fluid than that of the Pharisees, for example. Perhaps it was inserted to help sell the gospel to orthodox Jews. Perhaps it was inserted by a proto-Puritan who wanted, like so many do today, to bring back the Law and rid Christianity of that pesky freedom that makes telling people what to do and think so difficult.

Whatever, it does not matter. We have the example of Christ to be our guide which is something that is above all else. Christ showed us a new way of living, a new way of living for eternity; forever free to love as Christ loves us. To turn our back on this freedom and demand subjection to the Law as if Christ did not fulfill the prophets and did not free us from the chains that bound us, is to turn our backs on Christ and his Father in heaven. And that would be a very childish and contradictory thing to do.

Jonathan’s Epiphany Sermon 2014

Kings? Wise men? Magi? Three of them? Two? Four? More than four? Jewish? Persian? From some other land?

The Epiphany narrative in Saint Matthew’s gospel does not give us many clues about the identity of the mysterious visitors to the place where Christ was born. The gospel does not say that there were three men. We have assumed there were three only because there were three gifts. The gospel says nothing about them being kings. That’s a much later assumption. As for their names and their appearance: Melchior, old, white hair, white beard; Gaspar, young, ruddy complexion and clean-shaven; and Belthasar, black-skinned and heavily bearded; well these beliefs did not become widespread until about 700 A.D. Traditionally, it is believed that Saint Bede was the first person to mention them.

Matthew refers to the visitors as magi, but we’re not at all certain what the word magi means. From looking at the contexts in which we find the word used in writings contemporary to Matthew, it can mean many things, from someone possessed by a demon to a member of the Persian priestly class.

Therefore, all in all, Matthew’s account of the magi is somewhat ambiguous, and the story has become more ambiguous over the years, as the folklore has become entangled with the original story.

To add a further element to how we regard this passage we have to, as intelligent human beings, ask ourselves the question: did this episode in our Lord’s life ever, even, happen or did Matthew just make it all up? Matthew was the only gospel writer to record this event, so it could not have been a very important part of the early Christian tradition. Also, certain aspects of the story are quite unbelievable. The whole “following a star” business is technically impossible for a start. Maybe, there was an real incident on which this story is based but it is unlikely that what is written is exactly what happened.

Not that this matters very much. If this story was proved beyond doubt to be a complete fabrication the only people whose faith would be challenged to any extent are those who believe everything in the Bible, no matter how contradictory or plain silly, is literally true, because they would have to ask themselves the question: if there were no magi how can we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? But those of us who are able to accept that it is quite possible for the Bible to be literally true in some places and to be a non-literal account of the faith in other places, should not have such a problem. For us, the story of the magi and the story of the resurrection have no equivalence, they are two different things. The resurrection was a real event that had real consequences. If there was no resurrection then our faith is nothing worth. However, if there were no magi at the cribside of Jesus then our faith and our salvation would not be effected in any way.

So, basically, if you believe the story to be literally true, then that is fine. If you believe it to be a story with no basis in reality, or that it is a story that has been altered from the original reality, then that is fine. If, like me, you believe that questions regarding is basis on fact are, too a large extent, irrelevant, then that is fine as well. However, whatever position you hold to, the story of the magi and their visit to the infant, Jesus, is very important to our Christian education, especially in respect of our understanding of Jesus Christ. Matthew did not put this story in his gospel simply because he wanted tell people a good yarn. Nor, were the subsequent additions to the story, within the tradition of the Church, merely made up to provide entertainment. The story of the magi, within scripture and within the tradition, is best viewed as an icon, through which we gaze in order to see the truth that lies behind it. If we do this, then the various ways the magi have been described, their very ambiguity, becomes helpful to us rather than confusing.

The first thing we must do is to look at the story as it is told to us in the Bible itself. It seems to me that the most important thing that Matthew wants to emphasise is the fact that the magi came from abroad, from outside of the Jewish community. Most commentators hold to the belief that Matthew wrote his gospel for the benefit of Jewish Christians, who, as we know from other parts of the New Testament, could be antagonistic towards the idea of Christianity being open to gentile believers. At the very beginning of his gospel Matthew makes the point that the story of Jesus is important to all people, wherever they are from. More than this, he states, by his description of the magi being led by a star, that God proactively calls gentiles in to the new dispensation. There is scandal here. In the Jewish Temple, at the time of the birth of Christ, gentiles would only be allowed into the outer courtyards. Even ordinary Jews would not be allowed into the centre of the Temple, which was the province of priests alone. In the infancy narratives the stable symbolises the Temple, the manger and / or Mary, the altar of the Lord and Jesus is the Holy of Holies. The magi, in Matthew’s account, representing that which is alien, are given unrestricted access by God himself, right into the heart of the Temple to view the Holy of Holies. Fifteen hundred years before Martin Luther, this story, along with the story of the Shepherds’ visit to the stable, tells us emphatically that, under the new covenant, all people have direct access to God, not just the priestly caste. I am not reading the present back into the past here because this democracy among believers is very much the mark of the early Church of which Matthew and Luke were members. It was not until the second century that the fledgling, Catholic church, began to posit barriers between the believer and God.

Although, the exotic visitors to Christ’s birthplace, have been given various occupations over the years early Greek versions of Matthew’s gospel tell us that they were magi. Of the many meanings of the word “magi” that have been put forward over the years there are two that I think are most likely to be the ones that Matthew would have employed. Firstly, magi could refer to the priestly class of the Persian religion. This is interesting because there were centuries old connections between the Persian religion and the Jewish religion. For a start Persians believed in one, benevolent god, and had done for at least six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Some scholars say their religion goes back to 1700 B.C. or even 4000 years B.C. It is extremely likely that the Persian religion helped the Jewish people to come to the conclusion that there was only one God. The Persian religion, being primarily a philosophy of life, where the believer becomes a partner with God to lessen evil in the world by living a good life, also has a very ambivalent view towards other religions. In about 600 B.C. when the Persians, under Cyrus the Great, kicked the Assyrians out of the Jewish lands and became their new rulers, they were greeted joyously by the Israelites and Cyrus was seen as a servant of God, doing God’s will, and he and his descendants did much to rebuild the Jewish religious infrastructure. Therefore, the Persian god would have been, to a certain extent, respected by the Jews and, certainly, not seen as the enemy of the Jewish God, in the same way as the tribal gods of the Old Testament and the multitude of gods worshipped in the Roman Empire. So when the magi come to the court of the infant Jesus, it is not an act of submission, rather it is an act of paying respect and giving honour and an acknowledgement of Jesus as being of divine origin. This is the beginning of the process through which the name of Jesus will become the name to which every knee shall bow. The Christian faith is concerned with the conversion of the whole world, we do believe that our God is the God above all gods, and that salvation comes through his Son, Jesus Christ. However, the Epiphany story, along with all that follows in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters inform us that this must be achieved through the drawing of people to Jesus, with courtesy and love, rather than through the imposition of the faith through conquest or through force of any kind.

The second understanding of the word “magi” would have them as people possessing supernatural knowledge or power, most probably through their astrological abilities. Now you might think that having astrologers coming to Jesus is Matthew’s way of putting down astrology and other esoteric practices that are frowned on in the Jewish faith, but this is unlikely. In fact, Matthew is using the story of how the magi were guided to to Jesus, through their translation of the movement of the stars, to make the point that the arrival of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is an event that effects all of creation; and not just the world, but the whole universe.

When we move on from the Gospel record into the early traditions of the Church we come across the visitors being referred to as “wise men,” which is, linguistically not very different to the term, “magi.” Now, I have no proof of this, but I would not be surprised if this appellation began to be used at the beginning of the Second Century when the faith was fighting accusations of being intellectually wanting and only adhered to by uneducated people of low status. Apologists for the faith, such as Iranaeus, Justin Martyr and Saint Luke, wrote much to try and counter these attacks and to prove that Christianity was as much an intellectual religion as it was an emotional religion, and that Christian doctrine was of the same intellectual standing as Greek philosophy. By regarding the magi as wise men, the Christian Church was able to demonstrate how intelligent, knowledgeable, thinking people had been drawn to Jesus from the earliest moments of Christ’s time on earth.

The last title to be given to the visitors was that of “kings”. This happened as kingship became an increasingly important concept within Christendom. At the same time the three kings were given names and different characteristics. On one level this was just an embellishment of the story to make it more interesting. On another level it was a deliberate theological device to show the universality of Christianity. The kings have different personalities, they are of different ages and they are of different races. The person listening to this redaction of the story should be left in no doubt that all are welcome at the birth of Christ, that Christ can be born in the hearts and minds of anybody.

It may be that there is a political aspect to the ascribing of kingship to the visitors. From at least the time of the birth of the Holy Roman Empire to past the Reformation there has been a power struggle between secular rulers and church rulers. Perhaps the Church authorities liked the idea of worldly kings bowing down and offering tribute to Christ and, therefore, to the Church also.

So, finally, after all this enquiry, let us ask ourselves the question, when all is said and done, who were the visitors to our infant Lord all those years ago. Magi? Wise men? Kings? All three? The answer is so simple that it is almost a platitude. We were the visitors. All of us who profess the Christian faith and understand the humility that must accompany such faith were the ones who on that starlit night kneeled before his bedside and offered to him our gifts that represented our very selves. Jesus was born in real time two thousand years ago in a specific place, but he is also born anew every time somebody journeys towards Jesus, accepts Jesus as saviour and makes a commitment to live life in the light of that revelation. Because of this fact we have all been in the presence of the Christ child and our celebration of Epiphany is an annual reminder of this wonderful, life-changing fact.

Elizabeth Kaeton discusses Online Ministry

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW

It’s the Eve of the Nativity of our Lord and all is decidedly neither calm nor bright in many places in the world.

War rages on not only among nations but in the minds and hearts of men and women for whom the notion of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” – much less all people – rings as a dull bell of a broken, impossible dream.

If ever Jesus needed to return and be among us, right here and right now would be a good time for Jesus to make an appearance.

Of course, millennia of people have made that statement in different times and in different places. Year after year, century after century, generation after generation of people have looked East – and North, South and West – for Jesus to come and be among us, seemingly to no avail.

And yet, there are occasional small signs and wonders, hints and rumors, allegations and circumstantial evidence of the small, flickering sparks of the Divine in our midst.

Poets and prophets, musicians and writers call us to see evidence of God in everything from random acts of human kindness to the quiet, unexpected beauty of soft snow covering the hard ground, clothing bare tree branches with a certain majesty and nobility.

One of the miracles of the birth of Jesus is that our concept of time changed forever. John’s gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” adding, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Jesus is that Word, who was from before the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

It matters not to the faithful heart that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th. Some biblical scholars say the nativity most likely took place sometime in March.

Never mind. What is “real time,” anyway, except a boastful modern technological construct to make us feel better about not being where we’d like to be, right here and right now?

The birth of Jesus shatters the barriers of our human, limited, linear concepts of time. He not only changed our notions of the earth-bound time of our lives, but expanded time to include eternity.

Eternal life is the gift hidden deep among the folds of the swaddling clothes of that baby in that ancient manger in Bethlehem – even if it really didn’t happen exactly that way.

The Nativity is, in the Greek word for time, a “Kairos” moment. It is a occasion when time – human and divine – stands still, and the whole round earth knows something has happened which can’t be empirically measured or scientifically proven.

But, it is good, and it is right and it is holy. And, our lives are changed and transformed.

Which brings me, surprisingly enough, here. Of all times and places. To St. Laika’s. On Christmas Eve.

We come here from various places in the world, in various states of spiritual, emotional and physical being. Some of us hold a wide diversity of theological and faith perspectives, while others of us don’t quite know what to believe. Some of us are financially well situated. Other lives are marked by the almost constant worry and anxiety of financial distress.

We each have our own traditions, religious and cultural, that ‘make’ Christmas. Some of us can’t imagine this moment without trees festooned with favorite ornaments and dripping with tinsel that sparkles against the white or colored lights. Our doors are decorated with wreaths, our banisters and mantles adorned with garland. Perhaps there is a crèche in the living room and certain, special foods bake in our ovens or cook on our stoves and festive drinks sit upon our tables, waiting to fill sparkling holiday glasses.

Others of us sit alone in our apartments or large, beautifully appointed but otherwise empty homes, neither of which displays any evidence of the feast, save, perhaps, for a bowl of bright red and white stripped peppermint candies or a box of Christmas chocolates given to us by someone at the office. Some of us believe the lie that “Christmas is for kids.”

It may not yet be Christmas Eve where you are. It might already be Christmas Day. No matter. We gather here to come and worship. We join with others we do not know and may never have met “in the flesh” but with whom we are all related in this corner of the Christian Diaspora community of cyberspace.

We will listen to some prayers and Christmas hymns and carols, and time will not matter.

St. Laika’s is a unique, peculiar but vital and viable part of the post-denominational, emerging church movement. I do believe that, if Jesus were to return today – right here, right now – he would use the Internet and teach his disciples to use it to spread the Good News. Instead of sending them out, two by two, on foot, Jesus and his disciples would spread the Word in megabytes.

Indeed, I believe that is already happening.

Even now, time is standing still and the ancient voices of heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, cherubim and seraphim, are joining their voices with our own, wherever we are and whatever time it is in this exact moment.

If you still your souls, calm your minds, and open “the eyes of your heart”, you may discover a hint or two of the presence of God in your life.

Right here. Right now.

It may come to you in the unconditional love made manifest in the nudging of a dog or cat at your feet. It may come, floating delicately on the music of a Christmas carol, as an inexplicable and unplanned newborn inspiration to take the risk of creativity. Or, it may come as a random act of kindness from an unexpected source – perhaps even from yourself – to a most unlikely recipient.

It is Christmas Eve – at least where I am. All things are possible and all possibility is hope.

Even now, in this very moment, the Word is being made flesh and dwelling among us.

I cannot promise “peace on earth” or that people will have goodwill towards one another.

I can say that, for just this one moment in time – whatever time it is wherever you are, as we worship here at St. Laika’s – all will be a tad calmer and all will be just a bit brighter. Even in the darkest of night or the brightest of days.

Come, let us worship the newborn sovereign of our souls.

Merry Christmas!

Photo 1The author of this essay, the Reverend Elizabeth Kaeton, was, and still is, a pioneer blogger having started her internationally well known and well respected blog, TELLING SECRETS, nearly ten years ago, before blogging became the in-thing and well before Facebook was dominating the social networking scene.

St. Laika's strongly recommends that you check her writing out and that you do so regularly.

Email Jonathan at revjph@saintlaika.com