Saturday, February 06, 2016

Rethinking the meaning of marriage

Hosea 2.16-20, Matthew 1.1-16 / John 2.1-11
This year the Methodist Church is having a rethink about marriage. Unless it’s actually someone’s wedding day marriage isn’t something we normally talk about much, except at church council meetings when we're deciding what fees to charge. Perhaps that's because it can be a touchy subject. The Babylonians had the first written laws governing marriage and already the reason they had for making those laws was to sort out conflicts between the marriage partners.
In ancient Greece marriage didn't have the same legal force as it had in Babylon, it was a private arrangement between two people, or between their families. But it was still important, as a way of deciding which of a man's  children would inherit his property. A woman could have ever so many children but, if she wasn’t acknowledged to be their father's wife, they would have to have to make their own fortune.
But the ancient Greeks weren’t just preoccupied with money and inheritance. They were also the first people to decide that strong communities depend on, and are rooted in, families where parents and children find mutual comfort, encouragement and support.
By the time of the Emperor Augustus, the guy who ordered the census when Jesus was born, many people had given up on marriage and were going through life having a series of relationships. It was more than 2,000 years ago but it sounds incredibly up-to-date. He decided to stop the rot by making the first recorded attempt to pass laws specifically designed to compel people to get married and settle down.
When the people of Israel adopted the worship of one God the symbolism of an everlasting betrothal between God and his faithful people was taken to imply that lifelong marriage between one man and one woman was also the natural order of things. If it's good enough for God it must be the right thing to do! We see this in the prophecies of Hosea, who contrasts the faithlessness of his wife with the faithfulness of God, and says that God will go on loving his faithless people just as Hosea must go on loving his faithless wife.
In the New Testament Jesus and Paul are not opposed to marriage or sexual relationships As John Chapter 2 shows, Jesus enjoyed a good wedding celebration, but they both believed that we have a great many more important things to cram into our short lives. Getting married is a huge distraction from the more important task of preparing for the Kingdom of God.
In the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel only five women are mentioned and none of them was married when her child was conceived. Matthew seems to be making the point that God isn't very interested in human institutions like marriage and works through people who aren't married just as much as through people who aren’t. For a long time Christians took this very seriously and placed a higher value on people who didn't tie themselves down with family commitments but instead devoted themselves to God, and that’s still the foundation for rules about celibacy in Roman Catholic holy orders.
However, as the New Testament period drew to a close Christians began to realise that marriage was here to stay and they began to say that husbands and wives must treat one another with love and respect. They also decided that the Church was the Bride of Christ and therefore his relationship with us became a template for married life.
This concept puts a heavy burden on couples. It sets up the idea that a marriage should be perfect, just as the love of Jesus for his friends is perfect, whereas that's just not possible. A marriage can only be good enough. It can never be perfect all of the time.
The comparison with Jesus also set up the idea that one partner in a relationship might be more important than the other. In practice that is often the case; one partner depends on the other emotionally, or financially, or for practical support, although the ideal surely has to be an equal relationship of give and take. Sometimes Biblical writers stuck to the idea of equality and shared responsibility, but more often they were happy to accept the idea that the husband is equivalent of Christ and his wife is equivalent to his followers, who are called to obey him. This brought Christians closer into line with the Roman idea that the husband was the head of the household, and helped them to avoid rocking the boat at a time when they were treated with suspicion for being different from other people, but it’s not very helpful for us when we’re trying to think about marriage today.
For long centuries after the New Testament period, marriage was just a matter of custom and practice. Two people got married by joining their hands and promising to love one another and live together. Marriage was sometimes blessed by a priest, but it didn't have to be. In Norwich two young people claimed they had got married and that the housemaid had witnessed them do it. The girl's parents were furious and made the housemaid stand up in court and deny everything, and that's how we know what happened. Today we've come full circle, with the majority of people now choosing to set up home together without having a formal marriage. Should we be as relaxed about this as our ancestors were? Families may not always have been happy then, but the Church didn't try to interfere in relationships and the sky didn't fall in.
The way marriage worked for ordinary people was based on a division of labour. The word ‘husbandman’ meant the person in charge of the land and the animals, and the word ‘housewife’ meant the person in charge of the cleaning, the cooking and the needlework. This doesn't mean that jobs weren't sometimes shared, only that people knew who was in charge. Outside the home it was the husband, inside the home it was the wife.
We've moved beyond these safe certainties and in many ways that’s a good thing because people often felt trapped by them and were unhappy with their allotted role. But now that every couple has the freedom to decide who does what, we need to help couples keep hold of the idea of sharing, not just the workload but also the responsibility for seeing that the work gets done.
Getting married in church didn't become compulsory for Roman Catholics until 1514, and until the 1750s for everyone else in England. But the Church increasingly got involved in marriage as an umpire when things went wrong. Maybe that's still a good place for the Church to be, not criticizing people who choose to get married in hotels or to live together in a common-law relationship, but helping them to strengthen their bond by recognising that it’s every bit as valid, and just as binding in a moral sense, as a church wedding.
Sometimes, when two people had fallen out of love, they agreed to lease one another to a new partner, because divorce wasn't actually allowed. So people effectively sold the responsibility for looking after their husband or wife to a different person, usually someone they already knew and liked. But, in Thomas Hardy's novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, the outwardly respectable mayor has a dark secret. He leased his wife to someone else while they were in an abusive relationship fuelled by alcohol. After he sobered up and realised what he’d done he immediately regretted his decision, but his wife believed that her new marriage was lawful and only came back to find him when her new husband died in a shipwreck. And this isn't a story about the dim and distant past, it's set in Victorian England!
It was to stop abuses like this, and brutal customs like the kidnapping of young girls as brides, that the Church started to describe marriage ceremony as sacred, with lifelong vows made before God which shouldn’t be entered upon lightly or inadvisedly.  But the main reason why most couples stayed together through thick and thin was that life was hard, and managing a household and bringing up children without a partner was even harder.
The ease with which people can now separate is a challenge to the traditional Christian view that marriage should be 'till death us do part'. I think we have to accept that relationships can go irreparably wrong, but we should still stand against the prevailing idea that it's all right simply to fall in and out of love without trying to keep a relationship together and make it work. Couples often regret breaking up, their children may be damaged by it and it's very costly to society. When people come to church to get married they’re investing in the idea of something which will endure and we should help them find strategies to realise that vision.
Being in love with your partner has been the ideal in marriage from the time of the Song of Solomon, but only the new economic freedom brought by the 20th Century allowed people to opt in and out of marriage if they felt that their love had transferred to someone else or just cooled. Being happy at all costs replaced putting up with things the way they are. Christians shouldn't be asking people to make do with second best but perhaps we do need to put more emphasis on the comfort, mutual support and security which people can find in a good marriage relationship.
A very important part of the traditional marriage service was the witnesses, the community gathered around a couple who then helped them to keep their vows, not just by discouraging them from flirting too much with other people but also by babysitting or giving them financial help and emotional support when things got tough. Getting married on a scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean is very romantic but it leaves the couple entirely reliant on one another.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, at a time when the legal status of marriage seems to be in decline, there’s still a group of people who are fighting for the right to get married  in church. That group is gay and lesbian people. The Methodist Church has already affirmed their right to play a full part in the life of the Church. Now, in 2016, it has to decide whether that affirmation extends to sharing in all that we’ve said about the Christian understanding of marriage.
I’m not here to tell you the answer to that question. In fact, your views are being invited by the Methodist Conference. What I can say, however, is that the Christian understanding of marriage doesn’t depend on a piece of paper. It’s really a promise made between two people to love and honour one another, wherever that promise is made.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Making The Christmas Story Our Own

Luke 2.1-14 and The Royal Mail Christmas Stamps for 2015, see here for a closer look
This year' 2nd Class Christmas postage stamp is a picture of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem for the birth of their baby. Those of you read the post for Advent Sunday know that the donkey isn’t really part of the story, but here the artist - David Holmes - has imagined that Mary is riding on a donkey to save her from getting tired.
The bit about the donkey may not be strictly true, but the picture on the stamp is actually a visual interpretation of a Bible verse. It’s Isaiah chapter 35 verse 1. When “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God” comes to us,  “Thirsty deserts will be glad; barren lands will celebrate  and blossom with flowers.” That’s how the Contemporary English version puts it, but the Authorised Version says, The desert shall... blossom as the rose,” and here in the foreground of the picture is the rose!
I’m reminded of an Alpine walk we went on when our children were teenagers. My elder son, who was 14 at the time, said, ‘Why are we walking through this barren wilderness?’ Which would have been a good question, because the sun was beating down on us and the pathway was very rocky, except that all around us there were millions of wildflowers. And since then he’s sent us photos of Alpine flowers he’s seen on other mountain walks.
I don’t know what the deserts of Palestine are like, but the Bible envisages them blossoming not like the picture, with just one rose discreetly tucked away on the edge of the path, but like an Alpine meadow. And that’s because Jesus is “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God.” And that’s what we are celebrating at Christmas, God’s wonderful splendour coming to live with us.
And then, of course, there’s the 1st Class picture of Jesus lying in a manger, under a makeshift shelter in the fields. Again, we saw in the Advent Sunday post that the only part of this story which is recorded in the Bible is Jesus being laid in the manger. The rest is down to the artist’s imagination - except for the star.
The Bible says that, ‘Some day a king of Israel will appear like a star.” And it also says that some people saw the new king’s star, when it appeared in the eastern sky, and came to worship him.
In the £1.52 picture there are three wise travellers and again, in my Advent post, we saw that isn’t strictly true either. The prophet isaiah warned that people who “study the stars and tell the future” are “as helpless as straw in a flaming fire.” But the people who followed the star to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus weren’t trying to predict the future, they were coming to praise God for something that had already happened. Psalm 148 says “bright stars come and offer praise” whenever God appears, and so do “kings and rulers, men and women, young people and old.” And that’s why the wise travellers came, and why we have come here this morning, to celebrate God appearing among us, in the baby Jesus lying in the manger in Bethlehem.
And the shepherds came, as depicted in the £1.33 stamp, because they heard the angels’ message, while they were in the fields near Bethlehem, that the birth of Jesus brings ‘peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.’
But, unfortunately, not everyone does please God. The Prophet Isaiah warns us that sometimes dumb animals can be more loyal and trusting than supposedly intelligent people. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, whereas God’s children turn against him and never learn to love and trust him . Psalm 148 says, “All creatures on earth [shall] praise the Lord… Every wild and tame animal [shall] come [and] praise the Lord.” And Psalm 150 says, “Let every living creature praise him.”
The Bible doesn’t say anything about lambs lying down with camels, as David Holmes fondly imagines them doing on his £1 stamp, but the Prophet Isaiah does say that when the Lord’s reign is finally established on earth “wolves and lambs will graze together; lions and oxen will feed on straw.”
But what are we to make of the final picture in the series, the £2.25 stamp which you have probably never seen unless you are a stamp collector and bought the whole set? Is this the Prophet Simeon, who was told by God’s Spirit to go to the Temple so that he could bless the newborn Jesus? Or is it the Prophet Anna, who served God night and day and praised God when she say the baby Jesus and talked about him to everyone?
The artists says it’s actually a depiction of the moment when Mary learned she was going to have a baby. The angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you and God’s power will come over you.”

But I think the picture is a reminder that the Christmas story is only a story unless we make it our story, by inviting God’s Spirit to enter our lives and our situation and make the story come alive for us, so that Jesus is born in our hearts this Christmas as well as in Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bible Misconceptions About the Christmas Story

A meditation inspired by the Bible Society's 'Bible Misconceptions' quiz. 
This is the time when we traditionally prepare ourselves to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. But when is the birthday of Jesus?
A long time ago the Church decided to celebrate his birthday on 25 December because it was already an important holiday. But in the first of our Bible Misconception's pictures we see Jesus trying to fill in one of those annoying electronic forms on his tablet, and he’s stuck because he’s got to the bit where you have to fill in your date of birth, and he doesn’t know when he was born!
Have you ever had that feeling where you’re not sure what day it is, and you have to look at your phone, or a calendar, to find out the answer? Well. often in the past people weren’t sure exactly what day it was, or even what month it was, so they didn’t necessarily know when they were born and no one knows the birthday of Jesus.
All we do know is that it was God’s plan for Jesus to come, and that he grew up believing he’d been sent by God to show us that God loves us, and has a purpose for each of our lives, and wants to makes us the best people that we can possibly be. And the proof that Jesus was right about this is that he was the best person anyone who met him had ever come across. They felt that God’s love was shining through him to them. And he achieved God’s purpose for his own life, by dying to show us just how far God’s love is prepared to go to reach out to each one of us.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because that’s how the story ends, whereas in Advent we’re only at the beginning of the story. And in the next Bible Misconceptions' picture Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, the place where some of the stories about Jesus say that he was born. But how did Mary get to Bethlehem?
We don’t know that, either. In one version of the story Mary and Joseph were already living there, and in another version they travelled there from a place called Nazareth which was 90 miles away.
One of the things people say about cars is that they’re no good unless you can find somewhere to park them. Without a parking place, you’re condemned to drive round and round until you run out of petrol. And that might be how it was for Mary and Joseph too. Only wealthy people - or people who were working for the government or someone rich and powerful - would take a horse, or a donkey or a camel on a journey, because you’ve got to find somewhere to tie it up for the night and something for it to eat.
So if Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem they probably walked, which reminds us that when God decided to show us what he’s like he didn’t send his representative in a fancy car or on a big white horse. Jesus and his Mum and Dad walked everywhere. So next time we’re walking somewhere, let’s remember that walking was good enough for him.
The next Bible Misconceptions' picture asks, 'Where did Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem?'
One of the stories says they stayed in a house and another story says that there weren’t any guest rooms for them. But it was quite normal for animals and people to live in the same space, with the people at one end of the house and the animals at the other. And if you needed to keep warm, perhaps because you were poorly or you were a newborn baby, the warmest, snuggest part of the house was where the animals slept.
Lying in a manger full of hay is warm, and cosy and comfortable, so it’s the best option really if you can’t afford a cot or a cradle. When God decided to show us what he’s like he didn’t send his representative to live in a palace but with ordinary people who had to squeeze in with the animals to keep warm and safe.
And then the Bible Misconceptions' quiz asks us, 'Who were the people who came to welcome the baby Jesus on the night when he was born?'
According to the Bible, it was just some humble shepherds. In the picture they’re waiting in a queue and they’re not going to be allowed in until the wise men arrive too. But that’s not how it was. The story says that only ordinary people realised how important Jesus was and came to welcome him when he was born. In fact the story says that Jesus is bad news for rich and powerful people, because he turns their world of privilege upside down. He wants a more equal and just world where ordinary people are not just nameless faces in the crowd but where everyone matters.
And finally, I guess we’ve all played Where’s Wally - even if it was only in the dentist’s waiting room. This Bible Misconceptions picture invites us to find where the wise men are. They’re easy to spot because of their red and white striped hats. But how many of them are there?
At first glance it looks as though there are three, standing near each other in the foreground, clutching their gifts. But on closer inspection you’ll find there are six! And that’s because the story doesn’t say how many wise people there were, or even whether some of them were wise women.
All it tells us is that people came from far away places to celebrate the birth of Jesus - not on his birthday, but as soon as they could get there, because it was a long way to go. It’s worth travelling a long way, it’s worth making a special effort, to meet Jesus. He may have been an ordinary person but he was a person with an extraordinary message for the whole world - not just long ago, and not just in a far away place, but here in Yorkshire today.
So what inspired these pictures? Well, they’re from Twitter and they’re part of a  marketing campaign for Christmas.
This week a Methodist minister said that someone was paying for a banner outside his church to advertise the true meaning of Christmas, and he asked on Facebook for suggestions about what slogan to use. The people who were paying for it had suggested, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ or ‘Put Christ back into Christmas,’ but he wanted something new and fresh. Someone suggested, ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’, but that’s a lot of words to squeeze onto a banner. Someone else suggested, ‘Innkeeper welcomes refugees,’ and another person suggested, ‘We all need a stable influence.’ But, as we’ve heard, the innkeeper and the stable aren’t really part of the story. I suggested, ‘Get Jesus for Christmas. No batteries required.’

Well the marketing campaign which these pictures come from is #BackToBible. And it’s an ad campaign paid for by the Bible Society. Someone else is running an amusing Christmas ad campaign for luxury handbags, saying that it would be better to worship a £900 Mulberry handbag than the Baby Jesus, but the Bible Society wants us to go back to the actual Christmas stories in the Bible - which are all online - and to read on to see how the story ends, not just at Christmas but at Easter too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

True Love

Mark 12:28-34
In 1981 Prince Charles was put on the spot during a television interview with Lady Diana Spencer, his new fiancee. The interviewer asked them if they were in love. Lady Diana’s instant response was , ‘Of course!,’ but Prince Charles replied, ‘Whatever “in love” means.’
Now in case you think Prince Charles is just a bit of a cold fish, on National Poetry Day 2015 he read a poem on Radio 4, ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ by Robbie Burns. I thought, ‘This is going to be a bit wooden,’ but I was wrong. He read the poem so movingly that Clarence House has made it available on YouTube and Twitter. Listening to him it was impossible to escape the conclusion that he now knows what being “in love” means.
O my Love is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Love is like the melody,
That's sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
But what does being “in love” mean? It isn’t as simple as all that. So perhaps the young Prince Charles did have a point!
The ancient Greeks said that before we’re born each of us has a twin, another half who completes us and makes us whole. At birth we’re separated. We are born to one mother, they are born to someone else chosen at random by God, and we spend the rest of our lives searching for one another. If we listen carefully to God’s inner prompting, we might find our soulmate and be joined together again. So according to the ancient Greeks, God is challenging us to find the right partner who can fill in the gaps in our personality and make us complete.
It’s a bit like making the sort of simple jigsaw puzzle that’s given to very small children, where a police officer, perhaps, or a fire officer, or a baker, or a doctor, has been divided into two separate pieces, a bottom half and a top half. The puzzle is to take the jumbled up pieces and match the bottom half of each person with their missing top half. If we find our soulmate it’s like finding the other half of the traffic warden or the dentist in the puzzle.
It’s a charming idea and modern psychotherapists have borrowed it to explain why most people do in fact search for a soulmate. Instead of imagining that we have a twin, they talk about the loss small children feel when their mother is no longer able to feed them at the breast, or even cuddle them on her knee.
I still remember my own mother telling me that I was too heavy to be cuddled on her knee when I was six, whereas my brother - who was only four - was still light enough for her to bear his weight. I wasn’t too disappointed, but I haven’t forgotten! And psychotherapists say that all of us grow up looking for the same kind of emotional and physical bond that we once enjoyed with our parents.
The same idea crops up in the creation story in Genesis. Before The Fall Adam and Eve were perfectly matched, but after they tasted the forbidden fruit they fell out with one another. They began to blame one another for the toil they had to do all the days of their life and for the pains of childbirth, and so on. Since then all of us have been on a journey to rediscover the harmony which the original Adam and Eve enjoyed when the first human beings were perfectly matched with their partners.
It’s possible, of course, to see God  or Jesus - as the Christian’s true soulmate, the other half that we need to make us complete, the missing piece of the jigsaw in our search for meaning and purpose, or the perfect partner who can bring harmony to our lives.
But the ancient Greeks also had another idea about what it means to be “in love”. They said that love is the desire or compulsion to seek out whatever is good and true.
At its most instinctive, this desire urges us to find the perfect mate with whom to have children, in the hope that they’ll grow up to be better people than we’ve managed to be. But in its highest form, this idea also means that when we meet someone who is truly good and true we cannot help falling “in love” with them. Christians believe that when people meet Jesus they feel this way about him. He’s so good and true that it’s hard to resist the impulse to love  him.
Being “in love” with someone, even with Jesus, can’t be enjoyed in peace and tranquility. It involves risk. In a normal relationship there’s always the risk that we might lose the person we love/ Mary Magdalene feared that she was about to lose Jesus when she clung to him on the first Easter Day. Or there’s the risk that we might become obsessed with the person we love, or that our love might turn into something self-regarding or smothering, so that we care only about our own feelings and not about what the other person feels.
Whatever the poem may say, love isn’t like a delicate rose. Being “in love” requires us to be strong and supportive, to reach out to the other person when they need us. It means holding their hand when they’re lying in a hospital bed, or supporting them when they’re sad or under-pressure, or holding them close when they need comfort, and being prepared to let them go when that’s the right thing to do.
Down the centuries, following the example of Jesus, Christians have made a positive virtue out of the risks involved in being “in love”. They’ve been prepared to risk everything just as Jesus did when he went to the cross to bring in a new Kingdom of God based on this kind of self-giving love. And he asks us to take up our crosses, too.
He asks us to put love for him before love for our own family. Imagine what that means. When your father is alone in hospital, do you devote all your spare time to visiting him or do you still go to church services? When your mother has collapsed at home on the floor, and your sister isn’t answering her mobile phone, do you give back word for a church meeting or leave a neighbour to look after her? When your daughter is unwell, do you devote more time to supporting her or more time to church work? We’ve all faced choices like that.
When Jesus challenges us to leave mother and father, and brothers and sisters, and children for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel, is he talking about choosing between family and church, or is he talking about choosing between family values and wider values? Is he asking us to put being “in love” with God above the demands of romantic love, and family love and even love for our neighbours? Because he gave us two commandments, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and only then to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know that Jesus said being “in love” with God makes absolute demands. We can’t love God with part of ourselves. It’s all or nothing.
Emmanuel Kant said that being “in love” with someone means loving them just for who they are, and not for any reward - even knowing that they love us back. So we called to love God just because there is a God.
Another German philosopher, Hegel, said that when we’re falling “in love” with someone there’s often a tension between wanting simply to enjoy loing them, and being guided in the way that we love them by moral principles such as Jesus’ commandment to  ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ The way to resolve this tension, Hegel said, is for two people who are “in love” to trust one another completely and face their destiny together.
That works for our relationship with God, too. True love is based on mutual trust. God loves us so much that he makes us his adoptive children, and in return we’re asked to trust completely in him no matter what happens  to us.
I’ve already said that modern psychoanalysis sees our search  for someone to love as a way of recapturing the relationship we once had with our parents. I think one of the reasons why Jesus asks us to leave behind our human family when we follow him is that he wants us to concentrate on an an even more deep-rooted relationship. All our loving is rooted ultimately in God’s love for us. That’s the thing we must recapture if we want to find love’s true meaning.
In the novels of D H Lawrence sexual union replaces romantic love as the ultimate expression of real togetherness. But even Lawrence had to concede that being “in love” still means caring about one another and being friends. The film ‘When Harry Met Sally’ tests Lawrence’s ideas to destruction. Harry and Sally have to decide whether they can be true friends without becoming lovers or, to look at the problem from a different angle, whether they can be true lovers to their marriage partners when someone else is already their best friend.
The Bible contains an erotic love poem, The Song of Songs, which has always been interpreted as a poem about the poet’s love for God. Like Lawrence, his feelings are so intense that he simply has to use erotic language to describe them.
Taking its cue from this tradition, a Methodist Conference report said that the only way to understand the relationship between the three persons of God in the Trinity is to compare it to the intensity of a loving sexual relationship. That’s not so surprising when we remember how some of Charles Wesley's hymns also borrow the language of eroticism to express his feelings: 'Jesu lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.’
Some Christians haven’t been entirely comfortable with this intensity of feeling. Borrowing from that ancient Greek idea of being “in love” with goodness and truth, they’ve used the language of love to talk about abstract things like prayer or devotion. As the hymn writer James Montgomery put it,
Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.
He’s using the language of love here, but prayer is his soul’s sincere desire, not love for a person, not even for Jesus.
It’s only a short step further to say that there’s a hierarchy of loving. Christians have often believed that physical love is the lowest form of desire and spiritual contemplation is the highest. And this idea finds echoes in wider society, where being “in love” is seen as something romantic and special that happens in the mind, whereas sex has been reduced to  a matter of technique, which doesn’t have to be connected to love at all.
If being “in love” could really be separated from what it actually means to love someone in practice, it would be drained of its beauty and attractiveness. Loving someone means getting alongside them, helping them, making them happy, sharing the ups and downs of life with them, comforting and encouraging them. You can’t just love someone from a distance, or in an abstract way. You have to get involved with them.
The thing that makes Jesus special is that he turns God’s love for us from an abstract idea found in books, into something we can experience. In Jesus God doesn’t love us from a distance, from heaven. Instead he gets involved with us and on the cross he loves us with a kind of sacrificial altruism that goes far beyond enlightened self-interest, or the law of tit for tat - you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. He goes beyond even the altruism of the wolfpack, or the herd, or the tribe or clan, or the regiment of soldiers, where people or animals do sacrifice themselves, but only for their own kith and kin or for comrades with whom they’ve already bonded.
Jesus encourages to reach out to, and if necessary, lay down our lives for complete strangers, and even for our enemies. This is love taken to extremes.
The evolutionary scientist  George Price, who developed some of the science of altruism, decided that he needed to put this deeper understanding of altruism to the test. After his conversion to Christianity he gave away everything he had and becoming virtually down and out. Is our love for Jesus as deep as that?
We’ve seen that being “in love” with God makes us complete and unites us with all that is good and true. We’ve seen that it’s an unconditional kind of love which challenges us to reconsider all our other loving relationships as we put our whole trust in God and find our destiny in him. We’ve seen that God is the source of all loving and that people have sometimes loved him with a burning intensity. We’ve also seen that true love someone has to be put into practice. It can’t be just an idea, and that’s why Jesus had to come to share God’s love with us. And we have seen that, in the end, real love of this kind involves total self-giving.
The Anglican clergyman George Herbert wrote a poem about this sort of love:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But… know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Individual or Neighbour?

James 2.8-10, 14-17; Mark 7.24-30
Once, many years ago, I was sat in my parents’ house - where I’d lived for most of the previous seven or eight years - when a car crashed into a telephone pole on the opposite side of the road, tearing the facia board from our next-door neighbour’s house as it yanked the telephone line out of the wall. The driver sat there in shock for a moment, and then drove off. Almost immediately a man was knocking at the door. He’d seen me looking out of the window. ‘Did you manage to get the number of the car?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘But our neighbours across the road might have seen it because the car came to rest outside their house.’ ‘I am your neighbour from across the road!’ the man said. To my embarrassment I hadn’t recognised him. Well I was a teenager at the time, and teenagers live in their own little bubble, don’t they? But I think my lack of awareness indicates that we live in an age of individualism.

It hasn’t always been like so. Have you ever wondered why, in times past and even when every man carried a sword or a dagger, there was never any need for a police force? Our ancestors weren't nicer people than us. Instead neighbours were obliged to police one another. The inhabitants of each street or hamlet were treated not as individuals but as a group. They had to behave like a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme, only with teeth. If one of their neighbours committed an offence they had at least to report them and preferably to hand them over to the Law. Failure to do so meant a heavy fine for everyone.

Neighbours became snitches, or grasses who couldn’t be trusted to mind their own business. But people wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms then. There was no concept of keeping yourself to yourself. Everyone looked out for, and kept an eye one another. It wasn’t possible to be lonely, nor to be private.

That’s because in the past people didn't think of themselves as individuals. They thought of themselves as part of something. Above all, they tried to be true to their own family, and then to their town or community, or to the craft guild to which they belonged, or to the Church into which they had been baptised and perhaps ordained. That was their mindset.

Just imagine an open field system, without any fences, walls or hedges to separate our cultivated land from our neighbours'. If we let weeds grow in our share of the field the seeds would inevitably blow onto everyone else's land. So people looked out for another, and watched over one another, in ways that we would find intrusive.

But all of that began to change around the time of Shakespeare. Think of a play like ‘Hamlet’. One of the characters, Polonius, says, ‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’ What Polonius means is that we’ve got a right to be individuals. We don't need to fit in with the crowd.

In Shakespeare's day individualism was a shiny new concept, and regardless of whether the audience deplored it or admired it, that line from Polonius is one which continues to be quoted, ‘To your own self be true.’ Today, wrenched out of its original context, it’s certainly seen as good advice.

Fast forward then to the end of this period of change, when Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice. A wealthy and important lady comes to advise the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, not to follow the dictates of her own heart by marrying above her social station. But Elizabeth Bennet won’t listen. ‘I am only resolved.’ she says, ‘To act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.’

The great society lady makes one final appeal to Elizabeth’s sense of duty, honor and gratitude, but Elizabeth replies, ‘Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude have any possible claim on me in this instance.’ She goes on to say that upsetting her neighbours, however great or good, ‘would not give me one moment's concern.’ In an era when many people were still being squeezed into arranged marriages her attitude is social dynamite, blowing apart the old conventions.

But opinion formers like William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were letting a very dangerous cat out of the bag. With this modern notion of individual freedom comes a new sense of inner turmoil, conflict and soul-searching.

As we’ve seen, in the past people had no doubt who they were, where they belonged and what they had to do. They were John and Jenny from such and such a village, they were husband and wife, parents to so many children and serfs to such and such a lord. Their identity was defined by their relationships, whereas now we’re free to ask, ‘Who am I? What do I believe? What do I want to do with my life?’ These were meaningless questions for our ancestors.

Even as the industrial revolution began breaking down the old bonds between people and forcing us all to become tiny cogs in a giant, uncaring machine, two sometimes contradictory ways emerged in which people stuck up for alternative ways of life being.

Some people, like Jane Austen and George Eliot, insisted that we all have the right to choose our own destiny, not just whom to marry but what to do with the whole of our lives. Rather than feeling compelled to go down the pit, or into the mill or work on the land like their parents before them, the champions of individualism pointed to a world of infinite possibility.

But other people championed a nostalgic and idealised version of what they believed life had been like before the age of the machine. And that spirit is still very much alive in hundreds of craft fairs and farmers’ markets. When people celebrate the virtues of small farms or small communities engaging together in traditional artisan crafts they're appealing to a more neighbourly vision of community.

So which side should Christians come down on in the endless debate between individualism and community? Our answer probably depends on whether we’d prefer to belong to a large church or a small one. I’ve been the minister of two large churches and many small ones, so I’ve seen the advantages and the disadvantages of both. 

In a large church [like this one] the singing generally goes much better and there’s usually a variety of different things going on throughout the year, or even during the week, but people often complain that they don’t really know other members of the congregation and sometimes that they've never even spoken to them.

The larger the church, the bigger this sense of anonymity grows. People can be completely lost in the vast congregation of a mega church. It's a church for the industrial age where they become tiny individual cogs wrapped up in their own personal spiritual journey. In a mega church the outputs aren't widgets, they're salvations. 'Last week we achieved five salvations. Our target this week is six.'

In a small church the very opposite is true. It’s almost impossible to be lost in the crowd. Everyone knows who you are. The singing may not be very good, but if a small church is strong and vibrant the sense of community, of sharing or solidarity, is everything. The congregation truly can become one in Christ; it’s no longer just a nice idea, it’s achievable, and then even a few people gathering together can make a big impact on their neighbourhood.

Romantics and the advocates of small churches want to get back to a vanishing age of harmony and cooperation between people living or gathering together in small communities but, for the most part, the trend has been away from community and towards individualism.

The economic squeeze of the last few years has only made this trend stronger. Small local charities - like the one I work for during the week - used to be encouraged to work together. Now we’re encouraged to justify our existence by measuring what makes us different from, or better than, our neighbours. Competition has replaced solidarity.

Even at the level of the individual person, and what’s going on inside our heads, there’s been a movement - ever since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - towards understanding the way our subconscious works as an inner conflict raging within us. By inner conflict I mean the struggle to discover and set free our true inner self, the real me hidden deep inside. Sigmund Freud, the inventor of modern psychotherapy, said that each of is a house divided, because we’re all made up of a complicated and competing mixture of motives.

The writer of James is clear which side of the debate he comes down on. If he had the choice of going to a mega church where he didn’t have to mix with other people or really get to know them, or a small church where he'd soon get to know and care about everyone, he'd choose the small church every time - or t least a church which was organised into small groups. If he had the choice of going to a church where the members concentrate on their own individual spiritual journey, without doing anything practical to help people in desperate need, like refugees from wars or the victims of disasters, or joining a church where people are really concerned to help the needy, he'd go to the caring church. If he were faced with an inner conflict between selfishness and selflessness, between greed and generosity, he'd want to let God make sure that selflessness and generosity won the struggle.

He tells his readers elsewhere in this passage that we can’t pick and choose between different commandments. They all matter equally to God. But then he goes on to single out one commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ and calls this ‘the royal law’. What he means is that love for our neighbour sums up what God's will for us is all about. That’s an idea also found in the Jewish Talmud, which was being compiled around the same time.

In our Gospel passage Jesus encounters a Lebanese woman who is a member of the Syro-Phoenician culture, almost certainly a pagan therefore and not a follower of Judaism. He tells her at first that he can’t help her little daughter who is sick, but then he relents. After all, she too is his neighbour. Suddenly he's no longer bound by the ancient model of community where only people who belong to our group really count as neighbours. From now on his followers must treat Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers, or migrant workers from across the world, as every bit as much their neighbours as the people who live next-door, or belong to the same community, or work for the same firm, or attend the same church, or share the same faith.

Remember the man who said, ‘I am your neighbour!’ That’s what every human being in desperate need is reminding us. Followers of Jesus can’t be individuals lost in a crowded planet. Instead we have to live as though we’re all neighbours in a global village.