Wednesday, July 27, 2016


1 Samuel 8.1-18, Romans 13.1-7, John 18.33-37
A politician arrived with ten minutes to go before a big public meeting in a local church. Unfortunately the car park was full and there was nowhere obvious to park within walking distance of the venue. (I‘ve been there!) He looked up at the sky in despair and said, ‘Look, God, I know we’re not exactly well acquainted, but if you can find me a parking space I promise to lead a totally blameless life, committed to doing good, for as long as I remain in office.’ He looked down again and there, right in front of his  car, was a parking space. He parked up triumphantly and jumped out. ‘Thanks, God, but the deal’s off,’ he said. ‘I managed to find a space myself.’

I tell the joke because it’s about sovereignty, who controls what happens, and because the question of sovereignty is one of the big issues of our time. The debate before and after the European Referendum has been partly about sovereignty, taking back control from Europe and not giving it away again to multinational corporations. But, as our Bible readings show, sovereignty is a very complicated idea.

The dominant model of sovereignty throughout human history has been an individual person, a king or a queen, a military ruler, a high priest or a popular dictator, who is the sovereign, the person who gets to decide everything. But individual sovereigns can be killed in battle. Or they grow too old, or become too ill, or sometimes are too young, to make decisions. To get around this problem, people often said that God is the real sovereign and rulers only borrow their authority from him.

This is what was happening, of course, in the time of Samuel. In theory God was the sovereign and that was all right when he was telling Samuel what to do. But when Samuel grew old and appointed his sons to be his deputies, they didn’t listen to God’s guidance. ‘They turned aside after gain.’

In this Samuel was strikingly similar to his predecessor, Eli, who also let his scoundrelly sons rule the roost, at least until they were killed in battle by the Philistines. No wonder then that the people had had enough of God’s rule through prophets like Samuel and demanded to be governed by a king instead. God told Samuel to let them have their wish, but to warn them that being ruled by a human sovereign would mean losing their freedom.

The Old Testament says that the nation of Israel rejected God’s sovereignty when they chose a king, but that’s not how St Paul sees it. For him kings and emperors, no less than prophets and Old Testament judges, are instituted by God. And many centuries later, a French lawyer called Jean Bodin also came up with a similarly unbiased interpretation of what had happened in ancient Israel. He said that God lends his sovereignty to all of us We all get a little share of our own. That’s why an English person’s home is his or her castle. We control what happens there and no one can take that sovereignty away from us.

One of our prime ministers, William Pitt the Elder, once explained this idea in a very colourful way. He said, ‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it. The rain may enter. The storms may enter. But the king of England may not enter.’ This gave rise to the joke that ‘an Englishman’s house is indeed his castle, but only until the queen arrives!’

However, what Bodin recognised was that, for this kind of sovereignty to work - for everyone to be the king or queen of their own little castle under God - we need to put someone in overall charge. That someone could be an individual person like King Saul, but it could be a parliament where the representatives of the people come together to keep law and order and make the great decisions of state. For St Paul this is the natural way things should be. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.’

No doubt Paul would have agreed with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that without a sovereign, whether it be a person or a parliament, most people’s lives would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. So, in other words, unless we happen to have lots of strong muscles or be very good at martial arts, we very much need someone to be in control.

And that someone, whether it’s a king or a parliament, can’t behave in an arbitrary way like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, otherwise there’s no point in putting them in charge. The reason why we surrender some of our sovereignty, the right to do whatever we think God would let us do, is for the sake of peace and continuity, so that when we go to bed at night we can be pretty sure things will be much the same in the morning.

People have often assumed that Paul meant his readers to submit to the Roman Emperor and to see the Emperor as appointed by God. They object that this may have been fine when the emperor was a good person, or someone who at least encouraged good government. But what, they ask, about bad emperors, people like Nero who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? If we read Paul a little more attentively, we’ll find that he’s careful to talk about the whole government - all the experts, and appointees and civil servants - not about the emperor ruling alone. He calls on the Roman Christians to obey the governing authority, or the authorities, or the rulers.

Perhaps he might have sympathised more than we imagine then, with two other writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who both argued that it isn’t sensible to lend our share of sovereignty to an individual person, to a king or queen.  Instead, it only makes sense to lend our sovereignty to elected representatives, to a parliament in other words.
Unfortunately, the last two centuries have shown us that the problem with electing representatives to govern us in a parliament is that first we have to hold a contest for power before we can supposedly come together again to be governed by the winners. It’s very difficult then to agree with Paul that we should be ‘subject to the authority because of conscience’ when a few days previously we might have voted, according to our conscience, for a totally different vision of how our country should be run.

That’s the problem which the followers of Bernie Sanders have have in reconciling themselves to Hillary Clinton in the race to become US President. It’s the problem which followers of Jeremy Corbyn have in imagining someone else leading the Labour Party, and - although it wasn’t a Parliamentary vote - it’s the problem which Remainers have after the Referendum. Even Paul says that, while we have to pay our taxes, we need only honour and respect those to whom honour and respect are due.

The Twentieth Century has also shown us once and for all that countries or governments can never be absolutely sovereign. Of course, Bodin never said that they could be. He argued that God was the absolute sovereign and everyone has to answer to him. But he also said that the Law is sovereign - that there are some laws which are so fundamental that no sovereign power can ever be allowed to overturn them.

Hermann Goering’s defence, at his trial in Nuremburg after World War II, was that the government in Germany had been elected and could therefore do as it liked. No one bought the argument. He was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity.

This is the ground where Jesus confronts Pilate, who wants to know whether Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. Jesus’ reply is that he is sovereign, but he’s sovereign of more than just one nation or even of all people, alive and dead. He’s the sovereign of something far more absolute, far more fundamental. He’s the final arbiter of truth, the one who decides whether any of us - be we high and mighty or humble and lowly - have done the right thing. Everyone who belongs to the truth  must listen to him. They owe their ultimate allegiance to him as their sovereign and lord. Amen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Life Stripped Bare

(Luke 10.1-11)
Did anyone watch the programme on Channel 4 where people agreed to have literally all their possessions taken away? Life Stripped Bare started out as an excuse to see young people running about naked, because even their clothes were taken away. But each day during the making of the film they could take back one of their possessions and one person said that, although at first it was really exciting every time she got something back, the excitement grew less every day until she found she didn’t really need anything else. At the end of the programme some of the people gave away half their possessions to charity. They also found they had a lot more time to concentrate on what really mattered most in their lives.
Who has taken the sort of holiday where the only thing you know is where you’re going, but not where you’re going to stay? Or who has been on the sort of holiday or business trip where you arrived but your luggage got lost? How did you cope?
I’m usually the sort of person who has to have everything organised before I go on holiday. But this year we hired a beat-up old camper van, lived on tinned tuna and pasta and went touring. And we had a great time. I’m not suggesting that our road trip was anything like the mission of Jesus’ 70 followers. We weren’t trying to make a difference to the places we visited, only to have a good time. But it proved to me that you can travel light and leave a ot of things to chance.
What's it like to face a new challenge? Who has moved to a new town or city at least once in their life? Has anyone moved to a new school and had to leave all your old friends behind?
When that happened to me, my father said, ‘You may be lonely at first, but this is you opportunity to reinvent yourself and be someone different. He was right on both counts!
If that’s not been one of your experiences, just ask yourself, ‘How many Friends do I have on Facebook?’
Recently my brother invited me to be his friend on Facebook and to my surprise I found that he had only 15 other friends. At first I thought he was a bit sad, but then I noticed one of the people who took part in Life Stripped Bare went from looking at her phone every few minutes to deleting her Facebook app. She said that she didn’t need it. She could always ring the people who were her real friends!
George Washington would have understood where she was coming from. He once said, ‘A true friendship is a plant which grows slowly. Before you can call it a real friendship it must stand the test of adversity. Try to get on with everyone,’ he advised, ‘But only be close friends with some people and put them through their paces before you give them your trust.’
When he sent them out, I think Jesus was reminding his followers that living simply, living on the edge in fact, accepting new challenges, making new friends and going to new places, is a way to reassess our lives, to focus on what really matters and to concentrate on making a real difference. His followers went out on their journey stripped bare of most of the things they usually took for granted, and they came back excited and full of enthusiasm.
We don’t have to leave behind all our possessions, or go trekking or seek out new friends and new places in order to refocus our lives, but it certainly helps. If you prefer to stay at home, though, you can still join in the adventure. We can all look out, every day, for new ways of living life to the full, new opportunities for making life better and having new and richer experiences, and for new ways of helping other people and serving God.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The EU Referendum

JOHN 8.31-36, ROMANS 6.16-19
Jesus said, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
What does it mean to be free? I guess there are two ways of responding to that question. The first answer is that it’s obvious what freedom means; it’s the opposite of being shut up in a cage; it’s about being ‘as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows.’ The second answer, however, is that it all depends what we mean by freedom. And once we start thinking along those lines it becomes more of an academic question, something that philosophy dons or political theorists might want to debate.
Assumptions about freedom and being free are all around us. They shape a great deal of what goes on in our society. Just think for a moment about the fracking debate. Should frackers be free to drill deep into the ground under our feet, or should Yorkshiremen and women be free to say, ‘Not in our backyard!’
Different ideas about freedom underlie a great deal of the controversy between Brexit campaigners, who want us to leave the EU, and Remainers who want us to stay. Hardly a day goes by when freedom doesn’t bubble to the surface in their bad tempered exchanges.
Some people believe that freedom is about living in a well ordered society where everyone has the chance to flourish. So for Brexit campaigners that meant voting for the freedom to cut ourselves loose from all the red tape supposedly designed by EU mandarins to tie us up in knots, whereas for Remainers it meant the freedom to enjoy clean air, clean beaches, reasonable working hours and all the other things which the EU tries to regulate.
Some people believe that freedom means being able to say publicly what we really think. For Brexit campaigners that meant being free to say awkward or politically incorrect things, like their claim that Hitler and Napoleon both wanted a united Europe, or that we don’t want people coming into the UK from countries like Romania or Turkey. For Remainers it  meant celebrating a Europe where everyone is free to speak their mind, unlike the old Iron Curtain countries where there was no freedom of speech, or Turkey today where freedom is still being threatened. Brexiteers think the EU stifles the freedom to challenge what we don’t like, whereas for Remainers it creates a peaceful space where freedom of expression can flourish.
For Brexiteers leaving the EU is about the freedom to do what we like as a nation instead of having to compromise and accept fudged solutions to all our problems. For Remainers it’s about the freedom to go and live or work anywhere in Europe, wherever we choose, without anyone being able to stop us.
I could go on. Freedom sounds like a simple idea but in practice it can get very complicated because there’s a difference between being free to do something and being free from something. That means we have to make a distinction between freedom from bad things and freedom to do good things. Some people have even argued that freedom is such a complicated idea we need lessons at school if we’re to learn to cope with it when we grow up.
Nevertheless, Christians love to talk about freedom; freedom to worship and obey Jesus, and freedom from poverty or oppression, or from countless other sins. But is it ever possible for everyone to be free from bad things all the time? Isn’t that an illusion or a mirage? Even if we raise the poverty line to make more people free from hardship and want, there will always be someone who falls below it and is comparatively poor. And even if we teach everyone to become more tolerant there will always be someone who gets bullied in the playground.
St John in his account of Jesus’ teaching, and after him St Paul, argued that no one can be really free. We’re all prisoners of our human nature, which traps us into selfish and self-regarding patterns of behaviour. The only thing which can rescue us from this state of ondage is God’s grace, but in order to be set free by God we first have to submit to him. We have to identify with Jesus - to be baptised into his death for us upon the cross - before we can be remade in his image. There’s a paradox at work here. We can never be truly free unless we surrender our imagined freedom of action and become servants of Jesus.
Actually, the term ‘servants’ softens the original meaning because both Jesus and Paul use the word ‘slaves’ when they’re talking about freedom. There’s no one more unfree than a slave, and we think slavery is terrible, there was even a garden dedicated to ending modern slavery at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, but John’s Gospel and Paul both say we can only find true freedom by becoming slaves of Jesus.
St Augustine, followed later by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, took up this idea and ran with it. They argued that we’re not even free to decide whether to remain as prisoners of our human nature or to become servants of Jesus because God decides everything that happens to us. Some people are destined to remain trapped in their old ways, some are destined to be rescued by Jesus’ death on the cross.
But if we were to go along with Augustine, Luther and Calvin, we would have to accept that Jesus no longer died for everyone, only for the people whom God chooses to save. St Thomas Aquinas, followed by John and Charles Wesley, couldn’t believe that this was true. As Charles Wesley puts it in one of his hymns, ‘For all, for all, my saviour died.” They were convinced that we do have the freedom at least to choose to receive God’s grace. God then rescues us from our old servitude to human nature and grants us the power to begin to be obedient to Jesus instead. And that continues to be the Methodist Church’s position today. We do have real choices.
More than 500 years ago the radical priest John Ball stirred up the Peasants’ Revolt by arguing that everyone had the right to “be made free” from hardship and poverty, but he was still talking about freedom from. His revolution failed because he had no clear idea what he wanted people to have the freedom to do. It was another 300 years, during the English civil war, before ordinary people started demanding the freedom to help make decisions about things, and almost another 300 years more before all men and women got the right to vote.
That’s what the EU referendum offered us. The right to exercise our freedom, to choose between two alternatives, to help decide things. Normally, unless we live in a marginal constituency, our votes don’t count for much because our individual freedom is swallowed up in the will of the majority; whereas in a referendum each vote matters, we’re set free to help make a real difference.
The poet John Milton pointed out, however, that freedom isn’t worth much if we choose to do something unwise with it. We’re only truly free if we’re able to make worthwhile choices. Satan, he said, was free to rebel against God, but that was hardly the sort of freedom which is worth having. So having the freedom to make choices is a big responsibility and that shouldn’t surprise us because freedom comes hand in hand with responsibility.
The freedom to make moral and political choices is unique to human beings. Lions may be the rulers of the jungle but they’re not really as free as the wind blows, or as free as the grass grows, because they’re not free to do anything else. We won’t ever meet a vegetarian lion, and while they may be rulers of all that they survey out on the savannah they’re not free to rule the rest of the world in the way that human beings are. And that unique freedom to make our own choices about how to live gives us the privilege and the responsibility to use our freedom wisely and responsibly as partners and collaborators with God, not as a licence to do whatever we like.
The recognition that it’s our responsibility to see freedom as a precious gift leads on to three discoveries about freedom which people have made gradually over the centuries. First, we can't have real freedom until we’ve learned to be tolerant enough to celebrate diversity. We have to accept and value the freedom of others to hold different attitudes to life and faith, and different points of view. But second, there are limits to freedom, because freedom also depends on security. We need a police force, and laws to protect our freedom. Some attitudes and behaviours are just so extreme that they can never be tolerated and have to be outlawed.
The final discovery is that the tyranny of public opinion can be just as big a threat to freedom as the worst kind of dictatorship. Milton recognised this when he said that we are never truly free when we use our freedom to make the wrong choices. In that situation the lone voice standing up for truth is the only way that genuine freedom can survive. Let’s pray therefore that in all the choices we are called upon to make we may know the truth for then the truth shall make us free.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Communicating in community

Genesis 11.1-9
Acts 2.1-8 and 13-21
Antes de que todo comenzara ❘ ya existía ❘ aquel que es la Palabra (Spanish)
In principio erat Verbum (Latin)
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (NT Greek)
Au commencement était la Parole (French)
Da time everyting had start, had one Guy. “Godʼs Talk,” dass who him (Pidgin)
Na początku było Słowo (Polish)
I te timatanga ❘ te Kupu (Maori)
Im Anfang war das Wort (German)
All of these phrases, whether taken from the original Greek written by St John, or from translations of his words, are about communication. First, they’re about communicating the message to one another in the different languages spoken all around the world, but then second - because they are all versions of John’s Gospel chapter 1, verse 1, they’re about communication with God through Jesus, his living Word.
It’s particularly poignant for me at the moment because my own father is in Pinderfields Hospital following a stroke which has progressively robbed him of the power of communication. At first he could say the odd word, yes and no, or perhaps a short phrase - such as when he said he wanted a miracle to happen. Then he could only communicate by making affirming or confuting noises, and now he can only communicate with the merest glimmer of a look to say ‘hello’. His is a living reminder of the importance to human beings of being in community and in communication with one another. We are social animals and if we can socialise or communicate we are denied much of what gives meaning to our lives.
The people who wrote the Old Testament were fairly keen on the idea of the nation state. Most of what they wrote is about the story of God’s relationship with just one nation - the Jewish people. So by and large they didn't share the ideals of the people who came up with the European Union. They believed that the different nations and languages into which the human race is divided were no accident of history but something God actually wanted to happen to prevent human beings from getting too big for their boots.
Of course, in many ways it's a positive thing for human beings to want to work together. But it does depend on what we’re coming together to do. If we just want to exploit the world around us and the people of neighbouring countries, or build a fence and shut them out, joining together simply allows us to make an even more spectacular mess of things than if we were all working separately.
Even when human beings work together for good, to make the world a better place, there’s still the danger that we’ll try to be too clever and overreach ourselves. So, on balance, the people who wrote the Old Testament weren’t in favour of nations working together. They saw the mosaic of different nations, languages and customs as part of the way things are meant to be.
But the Tower of Babel isn’t just a fairy story. It was a real place - the City of Babylon, with its hanging gardens growing on a tower hundreds of feet high, was one of the seven wonders of the world. The peoples there didn't speak one language, but their masters were forging a common identity and a shared culture in a mighty new Empire which spanned the whole of the Middle-East. Yet by the time that this Bible story reached its final form, the Babylonian Empire had come crashing down. Was this God's judgement on the Babylonians' pride?
Our story from the New Testament understands God's will quite differently. The first Christians believed that God was calling all human beings to become part of one family, with Jesus as their leader and God as their father. They had no problem with everyone speaking the same language - in their case a simplified version of ancient Greek - and they were willing to adopt many other aspects of the shared culture in which Christianity began. It's against this background that Peter describes the Holy Spirit reversing the chaos of Babel and bringing people together, giving them a new shared understanding and a common allegiance to Jesus.
The Holy Spirit reunites the different nations of the Earth and also overcomes the biggest and oldest divide of all - the one between men and women. According to Peter and Paul, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Instead we’re all one in Jesus. Peter reminds the astonished crowd that being filled with God's Spirit isn’t just a male thing. Even the Old Testament prophets had said, 'Your sons and daughters shall prophesy’!
Other divisions are overcome in the Spirit, too - the inter-generational divide and the class divide. 'Young men shall see visions', and 'old men shall dream dreams', and God's Spirit will be poured out on handmaids and male servants, as well as on their masters and mistresses. It's all very inclusive and democratic. True harmony is being restored not by some global conspiracy against God but by his own Spirit.
The Spirit’s mission is about enabling the new unity of purpose which God wants all human beings to share. Do we feel that we’re all one big happy family? Do we share that vision of what God wants us to be? Do we celebrate the fact that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved, no matter how they might differ from us in other ways, or are we still broken and divided?
Christians believe that the unity which the Spirit makes possible reflects God's own nature, for God is Himself in community. The New testament says that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, and the Spirit of truth is their joint gift to the universe and to the human race.
Trinity Sunday’s Gospel reading, which is a very short one from John’s Gospel, chapter 16 and verse 12, attributes these words to Jesus:12“I still have many things to say to you… [and] 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
What John is telling us here is that Jesus wants us all to find togetherness in the Spirit both with him and with God, and togetherness with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with all of the people in God’s family, joined together across the world and across time and history.

Mary Magdalene

John 20.1-18
Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who were followers of Jesus  and who'd dedicated themselves to serving him. As someone said on Radio 4’s In Our Time programme recently, that doesn't mean they made his packed lunch or washed his socks. Jesus himself is the servant of those who serve, and his followers are called to be like him, to serve not only him but their neighbours, all who need our help. Being his servants means, then, that the women helped him with his mission.

So Jesus had a core group of male disciples in leadership roles but also a group of determined women on his team as well, who were ready to go to his Cross and his tomb. And this prominent role for women was replicated in the early church, where women are often identified by Paul as leaders and team members.

Mary seems to have been particularly close to Jesus. She's the only person he ever speaks to in the Gospels just by saying her name. It happens in the garden on the first Easter Day and it's a moment of great tenderness and feeling. We shouldn't read any more into it than that, whatever Dan Brown might say, but it's clear that Mary felt she had a duty of care for Jesus, especially after his death. She took charge of the rituals for embalming and preparing his body for the afterlife.

Luke embellishes Mark's description of Mary Magdalene by adding that Jesus had exorcised seven demons from her. What can Luke mean? Had Jesus healed her from a dark depression, perhaps, that seemed particularly oppressive and hard to dispel? Or did she have a chequered past of some kind which still haunted her until Jesus lifted the burden from her shoulders?

Whatever these demons were, it suggests that there's room for everyone, sinners and saints, on Jesus' team. In this way Mary Magdalene became an important symbol of hope. However many personal demons we may be fighting, and however chequered our past might be, we can still become servants of Jesus. More than that, someone like Mary who has found themselves in a really bad place or in inner torment, can go on to love Jesus more than anyone else.

In all the different acounts she emerges as the most important of his female disciples. Her name, Magdalene, means 'female tower' in Aramaic, so intriguingly - although Mary could just be named after a village with a tower in it, like Tower Hamlets or Castleton today, Jesus turns out to have a close male lieutenant called Peter the Rock, two close friends - James and John - called The sons of Thunder, a friend called Thomas the Twin, and a close female lieutenant called Mary the Tower. Women weren't normally named after the place they came from, so it does seem likely that Tower was her nickname and she's certainly the only woman in the Gospels who isn't defined in relation to a man. She's important in her own right, a tower of strength perhaps.

On Easter Day Mary found an empty tomb instead of Jesus' body and so became the first witness to his resurrection. She calls the risen Jesus, My Master or My Teacher, and the tradition preserves the actual Aramaic word she uses, Rabouni, so it was obviously considered to be a very important moment in the Easter story.

Mary's first commission from the risen Jesus was to go and proclaim the good news about his Resurrection to his other disciples, but they didn't believe her. Perhaps they didn't see her as a reliable witness, but the Gospel writers believed her and put her testimony centre stage.

As the Early Church developed and became institutionalised, some people began to feel they were being pushed to the margins by an increasingly dominant male hierarchy of bishops and leaders. They worked hard to put Mary back in the limelight again by describing her as Jesus' closest companion, a teacher and example for his male disciples, whom they saw as the flawed role models for the bishops who were now starting to oppress them. In the stories which they circulated, his male disciples ask Jesus why they can't be as close to him as Mary is, and he tells them it's because they need to become more like her, which for the people putting together these stories means becoming more open to new interpretations of the truth. The conversations they recount are pure invention, but the same emphasis on Mary as the truth-teller - teaching and guiding the other disbelieving disciples - is already present in our Gospels.

Mary at the tomb of Jesus with her jar of ointment was very soon conflated with two episodes earlier in the life of Jesus when a woman anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. Was there actually more than one anointing, as would appear to be the case if we take the Gospel stories at face value? In other words, did women make a habit of doing this, or did one woman copycat another, or has one story been retold in different versions? In one of the accounts the woman is called Mary and is clearly one of Jesus' closest followers, so it's almost irresistible to surmise that she is perhaps the same person as Mary Magdalene. But Mary Magdalene  is just a woman who wanted to go on serving Jesus by anointing his body after death. She doesn't need to be identified with one of the women who anointed his feet. Her example to us is important in its own right. We don't need to expand it by introducing elements from other people's stories.

One thing about which all the traditions surrounding Mary Magdalene can agree is that she's an important symbol of love and devotion to Jesus, fearless in her loyalty even when his closest male friends abandoned him. If the female lover in the Song of Songs, who goes about Jerusalem at night searching for her lost male lover, is compared to Mary seeking the body of Jesus before dawn on Easter Day, then a whole lot of Bible verses from the Old Testament can suddenly be used to describe the depth of her love. In this way Mary becomes an ever more striking example of love for God. In art works she's often depicted wearing a red cloak, then the colour of true love.

For some reason French people got so keen on Mary as a symbol for the perfect disciple that they even started the legend that she had gone as an apostle to France and preached the Gospel in Provence, and her shrine there became an important place of pilgrimage. Although the legend was entirely invented, and although the idea of women preachers and leaders was very uncomfortable in the Middle Ages, it doesn't let go of the Gospel insight that Mary was an apostle and a preacher.

Only in more modern times did people let go of that idea and come to see Mary as just another woman follower of Jesus. In paintings on the walls of churches, which congregations gazed at during the Latin mass, Mary the Mother of Jesus was often depicted holding her hands in prayer like a nun, whereas Mary Magdalene was often depicted holding up her hand in the characteristic gesture of a preacher.

Interestingly the legend said that she was one of 72 persecuted Palestinian Christians who had been put into a leaky little boat and cast adrift on the Mediterranean, just like so many modern refugees. Like them she had to survive hunger and the threat of drowning before she reached safety.

So, apart from that striking detail, what does the story of Mary Magdalene have to say to us? One modern take on Mary is a painting called Mary and Me, where the artist appears to be looking at a painting of Mary in a portrait  gallery, but when you look carefully you see that she's gazing into a mirror at herself. It's a reminder that whenever we read about the disciples in the Gospels we're supposed to identify with them and put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we can follow Jesus like them. In particular, of course, she's an important role model for women in the Church.

I think Mary reminds us that we have to be ready to do our bit for Jesus. It's not enough merely to listen to Jesus or to admire his life and death. We're called to follow him all the way to the Cross and to seek new life in him, stronger even than death. We're challenged to work for him, to do things for him and to speak on his behalf, and it's great to have such a wonderful female example of how we can become a true disciple and follower of Jesus.

Mary also reminds us that we have to love Jesus, but not in a clingy way. We can't hold onto him and love him for our own sake alone. Our love must always turn us outwards to focus on others. It can't even be love for the Church or our fellow disciples. It must be mission oriented, reaching out to those who haven't yet met Jesus in any profound sense.

Finally Mary reminds us that it's good to get close to Jesus, in prayer, in meditation, in Bible study, in poetry and song, so that we can love him completely, as Mary did, and know his will for us.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Why we are like God and why God is like us

Isaiah 53.3 - 12
John 18.28 - John 19.42
In a great many ways we resemble other living things. As we've seen before, we've got an awful lot in common with a banana plant, and that's because all living things on earth are descended from the same single celled organisms that first emerged from primordial chaos billions of years ago.  Like other animals, we also feel hunger, thirst, pain and satisfaction, we wake and sleep, we reproduce, we have to breathe to live, and eventually we die.
But we're also unique, at least among life on earth. Unlike most animals, we’re capable of thinking not just about the past and the present but also about the future, and imagining what that might be.
Some animals can do the same thing up to a point. They can think about what might happen next if they do something, or something were to happen, today or tomorrow. But human beings can imagine a whole different way of living in the future. A chimpanzee can only ever imagine living in the jungle, but we can imagine what it might be like to colonise the Moon, or Mars, or get married to Mr or Miss Right. In other words, we have the power to think creatively in a way which sets us apart from all other living things and makes us more like God.
Yet amazing though that is, for believers it’s not the only thing which sets us apart from other apes and intelligent animals, because there are at least four other ingredients to being human which make us not just different from other animals but also like God!
First, believers have said that our mastery of tools and technology makes us like God. Crows and chimpanzees can make simple tools but only we can build an aeroplane. Our creativity - both practically with our hands and, as we've seen, imaginatively with our minds - makes us capable of sharing with God in the work of shaping a better future rather than simply waiting for it to evolve in whatever way Nature dictates.
For believers this is just a logical development of the idea I've already mentioned, that the power and range of our imaginations sets us apart from other animals. But in this case we’re saying that our technical prowess sets us apart by making us co-creators with God. In other words, we become responsible for what the world is like. A chimpanzee can never be responsible for the way things are, but we can and that sets us apart and makes us more like God.
Second, we also share with God the ability to use language. Other animals, such as whales and meerkats, can communicate with one another in quite sophisticated ways. They share feelings of alarm or sadness when danger threatens or a little one dies. But only human beings can articulate their fear, or joy or grief and start to explain what it's like to be afraid or sad. Language enables us to share complex feelings and ideas, and it’s no accident that one of the things which connects us most intimately with God is that he comes to us as The Word. In Jesus he speaks directly to us, and we can speak to him.
The third thing which sets us apart from other animals is the depth of our love. Many animals appear to love their offspring, and some appear to love their mate. Female spiders may sometimes eat their partner, but penguins and swans can pair for life. But what sets us apart from the animals and makes us like God is our capacity to love those we don’t even know, complete strangers who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages and have completely different ideas from us. This is the sort of love which God reveals on the Cross. Only, on the Cross Jesus takes this capacity to love to its ultimate expression, by declaring his love for his enemies and those who hate him. We won't catch animals doing this!
The last ingredient which sets us apart from other animals and life forms isn't something which makes us like God; instead it’s something which makes God like us - and that's our capacity for redemptive suffering.  Animals suffer, of course, and mother animals often suffer redemptively for their offspring - going to extraordinary lengths to improve their children's life chances. As we’ve said on previous occasions, a pack or family of animals will sometimes go without food themselves or make extra efforts in order to look after a wounded member of their group, and human beings too will suffer redemptively for other members of their clan, or regiment or group of sworn comrades. But Jesus - by loving his enemies and those who hate him - carries redemptive suffering to a new level. If he weren't God, then he would simply be demonstrating how far human beings are capable of going in sharing their love and reaching out to others,because there is nowhere else for love to reach beyond total self-sacrifice.
Of course, we can make other people share with us in our self-sacrifice, as people sometimes do when they involve their friends and family in their suffering and downfall. So occasionally we read about people who - when things are at a low ebb - kill their entire family before committing suicide, or at least bring shame and ruin down on them through their own mistakes or misdeeds. Adolf Hitler took this approach to extremes when he decided to involve the whole German nation in his own fall from power. But these are not examples of redemptive suffering.
Redemptive suffering means suffering yourself in order to make life better for others, and Jesus takes this kind of positive suffering to its ultimate expression by suffering for the sake of those who hate him and who have never known him, as well as for his friends.
Jesus shows us that what makes our capacity for redemptive suffering like God is that God chooses to suffer redemptively for us. Previously, people had taught that suffering is a part of the human condition but not part of what it means to be God. Instead, they believed that suffering was something which sets us apart from God, because God is unchanging and therefore could not be put to suffering.
The Cross challenges that idea by turning it on its heads. God is unchanging because it has always been in his nature to want to suffer for us, to suffer redemptively. By dying on the Cross, his chosen representative Jesus, who is one with him, lays bare this eternal truth. When we suffer we are not being abandoned by a God who has no connection with suffering, instead we are being embraced by a God whose nature it is to share our suffering and bring something positive out of it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chaos Theory and the Story of Easter

John 12.1-8, 27-28
One of the things that scientists have discovered about our universe is that it isn't as predictable as it once seemed. There was a time when scientists believed it runs like clockwork, and at some levels it does. The planets orbit the sun like clockwork, our bodies work in fairly predictable ways and even the weather can be predicted a few days ahead with reasonable accuracy. But probe beneath the surface and the world starts to look disturbingly random.
Let’s think for a moment about my journey to work from Hemsworth to Sheffield. There are basically three ways I could go. Two of them are roughly the same length, the route which takes the backways around Rotherham and the route along the Dearne Valley Parkway and the M1 motorway. Both go to Meadowhall. The third way is longer and involves travelling along three different motorways and a dual carriageway, but it avoids Meadowhall.
I listen to the traffic bulletins on the radio, so each day I have to decide which way is going to be quicker. But other drivers are listening to the radio too. If we all hear that there’s been an accident on the motorway at Meadowhall we’ll probably choose one of the alternative routes, but if we all choose the same alternative it could actually take us much longer to get to work than if we had joined the back of the queue.
This means there’s a random quality to the way the traffic flows. Sometimes one route will be much quicker, sometimes another; and if there’s an accident at Meadowhall the effects on the traffic may be totally different on two separate occasions, depending on what each of the thousands of drivers decides to do.
It’s unpredictable, and yet it’s not totally unpredictable, because over the course of hundreds of accidents and traffic jams at Meadowhall a pattern does emerge. The likelihood of different outcomes can be predicted even when the actual outcome on any particular day cannot. And I guess that’s pretty much how weather forecasting works too.
The loose  term that’s popularly used to describe how we can forecast the way that traffic flows or the weather will unfold is Chaos Theory. I listened to a radio discussion about Chaos Theory recently and one of the contributors said that if a coin is tossed high enough into the air then even God will not be able to predict which way it will come down. That made me sit up and think!
He went on to explain that the unpredictability arises because everything depends on how the coin cuts the molecules in the air as it passes through them on the way down and that is an entirely random event. But on the other hand it's also a bit like looking at a picture made up of thousands dots. If you look at the picture close-up the pattern of the dots seems entirely random, but from a distance they resolve into a picture. When we look at the big picture, all the coin tosses that have ever happened throughout history, a pattern does begin to emerge. Half the time the coin will land on its head and half the time it will land on its tail.
So Chaos Theory suggests that, from God's perspective, there’s an apparent order to what’s happening in the world even when individual events look totally disordered or unpredictable. The individual components in the pattern will always have the freedom to fall where they will, they’re not preordained to fall into a particular place, but nonetheless over time a pattern of how individuals are likely to behave will definitely begin to emerge.
And this works for human thought processes as well as for coin tossing. The brain is enormously complex and it’s completely impossible to predict how anyone will respond to a given situation. We may choose to jump one way; we may choose to jump the other. Our impulse may lead us to do or say one thing or something completely different, depending on which side we got out of bed this morning. But over time a pattern will still emerge, and more than that, our circumstances will begin to shape the way our brain works and cause certain patterns of behaviour to predominate.
For instance, London taxi drivers have to learn a lot of knowledge about the streets of London and this has been shown to make their memories much better than other people's. And a cautious person like Judas Iscariot becomes more likely to save his own skin by planning ahead and looking for a way that will get him out of trouble, whereas an impulsive person like Peter becomes ever more likely to do or say something in the heat of the moment; to say the wrong thing, perhaps, and regret it later.
And that raises the thorny question, how far were the players in the Easter Story in control of their own actions? Pontius Pilate agonised about whether to find Jesus guilty. What if he’d decided to acquit Jesus and throw the chief priests out, even if it caused a riot? Later, after Jesus’ death, Pilate did cause a riot about something else.
And what if the chief priests had decided that Jesus probably wasn't that much of a threat and had let him go home to Galilee after the Passover instead of arresting him? Or what if King Herod had intervened and offered Jesus his protection. That’s what happened when one of his relatives listened to the preaching of St Paul. He and the governor both agreed that Christianity wasn't doing any harm. If Paul hadn't already appealed to the Emperor they would have released him.
When Jesus warned his disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and put to death, how did he know that this would actually happen? I think there are two possible answers. One is that Jesus was a shrewd judge of character. He made a pretty good guess as to how things would turn out and events tragically proved him right. The other possible explanation is that God revealed to him what the future held.
You see, for God there is always an additional factor. God may not be entirely in control of events, but he is above and beyond time, so he can see from his special vantage point how things will work out in the end without necessarily having preordained or predicted them from the beginning.
It’s a bit like the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. Down in the valley the soldiers were told to charge some guns, but they couldn’t see the guns in question. They assumed they were being ordered to charge straight down the valley on a suicidal course where they would be shot at constantly from three sides. But from the vantage point of the generals up on the hill above they were charging in completely the wrong direction. God sees how things are going to turn out even when, down in the thick of the action, we are still free to choose which way to go.
Except that neither explanation lets God entirely off the hook. What prompted Judas to betray Jesus? We shall never know, but we can’t rule out the possibility that one factor was Jesus’ own apparent fatalism about what was going to happen.
If Jesus had promised his followers that he was going to emerge unscathed from his journey to Jerusalem would Judas have dared to turn traitor? Was Judas wondering which way to turn? And did Jesus’ despairing prophecies alter the neural pathways in his brain and finally persuade him to go over to the other side? In other words, did Jesus consciously influence his own fate? And if that’s the case, how far are people like Judas and Peter responsible for their own actions?
But this isn’t just an historical question, is it? Because each of us has our own decisions to make every day. What will we do or say in the next moment? How will we respond to good times and bad? What effect will we have on other people? Is the way our lives are turning out entirely random, disordered and unpredictable, or are we shaping our own destiny to some extent?
At any particular moment what we do or say may be dictated by random things that are happening at a microscopic level in our brain, but what is the bigger pattern that is taking shape? Are we - by consistently making similar choices - laying down a way of behaving that will be reinforced by constant repetition over time? In other words, are we becoming more kind, more gentle, more caring, more thoughtful, or are we becoming more embittered, disgruntled, disappointed, fearful and self-centered? We’ve all seen people who lives went in one of those  directions.
And by turning to God, as Jesus did can we ask God’s grace to intervene and subtly reinforce the good pathways and patterns of behaviour, so that we set off on a trajectory towards holy living? Martin Luther said, ‘No.’ He believed the pattern for our living is already fixed and we won’t be able to change it however hard we try. All we can do, like Peter, is to ask God to forgive us for the wrong turns we may take.
But John Wesley said, ‘Yes.’ We can consciously choose to ask God to reshape the direction we take so that the pattern does start to be an improving one. He never claimed that this had actually happened in his own life, but he always believed that it was possible.