Thursday, May 29, 2014

I don't believe in an interventionist God

Matthew 28.1-10, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11
I like Nick Cave’s song because of its audacious first line: ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. What an unlikely way to begin a love song!
He once explained that he wrote the song while sitting at the back of an Anglican church where he had gone with his wife Susie, who presumably does believe in an interventionist God - at least that’s what the song says.
Actually Cave has always been very interested in religion. Sometimes he calls himself a Christian, sometimes he doesn’t, depending on how the mood takes him. He once said, ‘I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it.’ But his lyrics often include religious themes and he has also said that any true love song is a song for God.
So maybe it’s no coincidence that he began this song in such an unlikely way, although he says the inspiration came to him during the sermon. The vicar was droning on about something when the first line of the song just popped into his head.
I suspect the vicar was talking about whether or not we can believe in an interventionist God and I must confess that my sympathies are with Nick Cave. Like him, I believe in God but sometimes I struggle to believe in an interventionist God.
Cave’s father died in a car accident when he was only 19. I guess he asks himself, ‘If there really is an interventionist God, why didn’t he intervene to prevent the car accident from happening?’
But some people have no trouble at all believing in an interventionist God, like my colleague at work in Darnall. We set off for home from a conference in Newcastle at 4pm one Friday afternoon and I had to drive her down the A1 and put her on the 6.15pm train from the railway  station close to where I live.
We knew when we set out that it was going to be a close run thing. Getting behind a slow moving lorry, which spent about 10 miles overtaking a convoy of even slower moving lorries, didn’t help. When we got to the centre of Pontefract we were still ten minutes’ drive from my local station and we knew, by checking on the internet, that the train was running only one minute late. That minute was going to be crucial.
‘There are two sets of traffic lights between here and the station,’ I said when we got to Purston Jaglin. ‘If they’re green we might make it!’ Sure enough, the first set of lights turned green as we approached them. So far, so good. But when we reached the second set there were eight cars in front of us.
‘I have to warn you,’ I said to my colleague, ‘That I’ve never seen this many cars go through those lights in one phase.’
‘You’ll have to jump them!’ she said. ‘That’s not going to happen,’ I thought. But anyway, we did get through the lights. When we pulled up outside the station she opened her car door and said, ‘I can hear the training coming!’ We jumped out, collected her bags and ran down the steps to the station. As we got onto the platform the train came to a halt, she got on and away it went.
Afterwards, she sent me a text: ‘I think God had his hand in the timing on that journey!’ she wrote/ Now how does that work? Did God stop the traffic lights from changing? And if so, why didn’t He prevent the lorry driver from pulling out in front of us on the A1 and slowing us down for 10 long miles?
I struggle to believe in an interventionist God, a God who just waves a magic wand and puts things right for us. My colleague was asking me to believe that God influenced the timings on our journey from Newcastle, like the time God intervened in the Battle of Gibeon, when first He threw down huge hailstones from heaven and then made the sun stand still, and the moon stop, until the nation of Israel had taken vengeance on their enemies. Even the writer of the story in Joshua acknowledges how exceptional it was that God apparently fought for Israel. ‘There has been no day like it, before or since,’ he says.
Nevertheless, I think Nick Cave’s song is rather sweet. He asks, if God does intervene in people’s lives, please would He not intervene in Susy’s life. ‘I would kneel down and ask Him not to intervene when it came to you, not to touch a hair on your head; to leave you as you are.’
Well, like Nick Cave, I struggle to believe in an interventionist God, a God who answers some prayers and not others, a God who rescues some people and allows others to perish. But, of course, in the end I can’t agree with the Nick Cave. I’m on Susy’s side. Although it maybe a struggle, I do believe in an interventionist God. And that’s because Easter is about God intervening. If we believe in the risen Jesus, we do believe that God intervenes.
Of course, that still leaves the question, ‘How much does God intervene?’ Paul, for example, is absolutely convinced that God intervened to raise Jesus from death. He says that he has met the risen Jesus himself, and that the risen Jesus turned his life upside down. He also says that the risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time, so this wasn’t a dream or simply a personal experience, it was a real, tangible, shared experience. And yet he never mentions the empty tomb. Nor, for that matter, does he mention Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead, he says that Jesus was ‘descended from David according to the flesh’.
Paul was the first Christian theologian, yet it’s not entirely clear what sort of an interventionist God Paul believes in. But he does believe in an interventionist God, a God who gives us the promise of new life in Jesus.
Some early Christians believed, and modern Muslims also believe, that God intervened on the cross, to save Jesus from dying and take him straight to heaven’ leaving someone else - or the mere shell of Jesus’ human body - to die on the cross for him. But Paul doesn’t believe that.
Do you remember the passers-by who taunted Jesus on the cross, saying things like, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ It’s axiomatic for Paul that God could not intervene to save Jesus from dying, he could only intervene to raise Jesus from death.
So like Paul, I do believe in an interventionist God, but I don’t believe in a God who can always intervene. I believe in a God who cannot necessarily prevent suffering and injustice but who can work in spite of them.
Nick Cave goes on to say, ‘And I don't believe in the existence of angels,’ but then he adds - very romantically - ‘But looking at you I wonder if that's true.’ I can go further than Nick Cave on this one. I can say a little more emphatically than he does that I don’t believe in angels - with not so many ‘buts’ this time, at least if we mean people clothed in dazzling white, perhaps with wings, or if we mean guardian angels assigned to take care of us. So I have trouble with the angel who rolled the stone away in Matthew’s account of Easter Day, whose appearance was like lightning, and whose clothing was white as snow.
But I do believe in messengers from God, which is what the word ‘angel’ actually means. I’m not sure what form those messengers actually take, though. The young man sitting in a white robe inside Jesus’ tomb in Mark’s version of the same story could be a less dramatic version of the sort of angel Matthew is thinking about, or he could be a fellow believer, someone inspired by God to come to the tomb and tell Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus has been raised and is going ahead of them; someone sent to make ‘bright and clear’ their path. And I do believe in angels if we mean people who are sent by God ‘to walk, like Christ, in grace and love’, and guide us into his arms.
And like Nick Cave, I do believe in love, and I know that you do, too. And I believe in a path that we can walk down, me and you, the path of love and self- offering that Jesus set out for us in his own life, death and resurrection. For those are the ultimate messages from the Easter story. First, that the love of God triumphs over everything, even sin and death. And second, that the living Lord Jesus still goes ahead of us - as he went before the first witnesses of his resurrection - making our journey bright and pure. And he will keep returning, always and ever more, just as the first Christians implored him to do in one of their communion prayers, ‘Marana-tha’ - ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
Now you’ll say I’m messing with the words and sentiments of Nick Cave’s song. He was talking about his love for his wife whereas I‘m talking about the love of God revealed in Jesus. But then it was Nick Cave himself who said that any true love song is really a song for God.
So I do believe in an interventionist God. Not one who changes the traffic lights so someone can catch a train home for the weekend, but a God who raises the dead, who breathes new life into lost causes, who triumphs over suffering and loss, whose love can never be defeated, whose messengers still guide us into his arms, whose risen Son goes ahead of us on our path through life and even beyond death.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong? [4]

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8.1-11
Ezekiel offers a different metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in. People who think they are better than they really are resemble dry bones piled on a battlefield. That’s how things will end up for us unless something changes radically!

The nation of Israel thought they were good but on the day when they encountered a determined and ruthless foe they discovered how hollow their self belief had been. Their army was overrun at the Battle Of Megiddo and their king, Josiah - who had a reputation for being a jolly good king, was shot full of arrows. And each one of us risks the same sort of fate when we come up against the moral dilemmas of daily life. When it comes to the crunch, our goodness can turn out to be skin deep and in no time at all we can end up morally shredded, as worthless as dry bones. But all is not lost. The Psalmist is mistaken. God’s patience is never exhausted. Our hope is never lost and we are never completely cut off from his loving kindness. God can make even dry bones live again and he says, ‘I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’ Putting this in Christian terms, no matter how many battles we may have lost with the sinful side of our human nature, we can still be justified by faith in Jesus' death for us upon the Cross, and God's love can still be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Like Ezekiel, Paul also seeks to reassure us that even good people gone wrong are not condemned if we put our faith in Jesus. For the Spirit of life promised to us by Jesus sets us free from the cognitive dissonance with which we struggle. We are not dependent on what human nature can do any more. We can depend on the Holy Spirit, which offers us new life and peace in him.

Paul observes that people like us who want to do good find that we simply can’t please God all of the time. Our minds constantly revert to the hundred-and-one temptations which quickly overcome good people and subvert our best intentions. But the God who raised Jesus to new life after he died for us can offer a kind kind of life to us too, if we only allow the Spirit of Jesus to dwell within us.

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong (3)


Psalm 95, Romans 5.1-11
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. The Psalmist's view is that God is so creative and so wonderfully loving that we shouldn't allow anything to separate us from him.
We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. He cares personally for each one of us and you'd think that would make us grateful and determined to be good.
My grandfather had a herd of sheep. To look at them, scattered around the field eating grass and watching over their lambs, they seemed like free agents who could do whatever they liked. But not a bit of it. The flock had a leader, whom my grandfather had kindly nicknamed Granny. When he came to the gate with a sack of feed she would walk to meet him and then she would follow him all the way to the feed trough. She never hurried, and she was never pushed or jostled by the rest of the flock, because she was the acknowledged leader of the flock and they all fell into line obediently behind her. I don't know how she enforced her priority in the pecking order, but she did! So those were good sheep. but not all sheep are as docile and well behaved.
When I was a child we used to go sometimes to sheepdog trials. They were supposed to be a test of which shepherd and dog had the best working relationship, but actually they were often a test of which competitor was unlucky enough to get the most stubborn set of sheep. The sheep would be divided into fours and each competitor worked with just four of them. But some sheep were good and would do just what the dog wanted, and some were determined to do their own thing. Once a dog got so frustrated that it tried to bite a sheep, but it wasn't entirely the dog's fault. Those sheep were spoiling for a fight!
The Psalmist warns that, although God is the good shepherd, we are not necessarily obedient sheep. Too often, even those of us who think that we're good find ourselves hardening our hearts to what is right. Like the sheep in the sheepdog trials we test the shepherd and put him to the proof, even though we have seen his goodness to us, and that's often because we convince ourselves that we're not so bad - that it's not our fault if we get bitten. And God gets frustrated, like the shepherd and the dog who were unlucky enough to draw the stubborn set of sheep. In fact, the Psalmist says an extraordinary thing; that God came to loathe the generation of people whom he rescued from Egypt so much for going astray that he swore - in his frustration - that they should not enter his rest in the Promised Land.
There is an implicit threat in the way the Psalmist recounts this story. 'O that today you would listen to his voice!' he tells the worshippers. 'Do not harden your hearts; do not go astray and disregard God's ways, or else you too shall not enter his rest just like the cursed generation who were condemned to wander in the wilderness without respite.'
But, of course, we know this isn't necessarily true. Our situation isn't as hopeless as the Psalmist implies.We can still obtain access to God's peace and grace, says Paul, even though we don't manage to be as good as we might like to imagine; and that's because God's patience isn't exhausted after all. We can still be justified by faith  in Jesus' death for us upon the Cross, and God's love can still be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Although we are still struggling and failing to be good enough, God has died for the ungodly. 'Perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die,' says Paul, 'But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.'
Notice the almost casual way in which Paul moves from talking about God to talking about Jesus Christ, as if they were almost one and the same. God is not Jesus. He is more than Jesus. But we can say that Jesus is God. So if Jesus was willing to die for us, even though we are so shot full of imperfections, that proves the Psalmist was mistaken. We do, as the Psalmist says, make God angry by our disobedience. We do make God feeling loathing for the way we justify our behaviour. Paul actually talks in even strongly language than the Psalmist; he says that we incur God's wrath. But it is not true that we are condemned to wander for ever in the wilderness, cast out from God's love. We can find our rest in him. Despite our weakness we can be reconciled to God by Jesus' death for us and the Spirit of the risen Jesus can help us to become better people.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that another Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.

Why Are Good People Tempted to Do Wrong? (2)

John 3.1-17, Romans 4:1-5 &13-17
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. Nicodemus recognises that God is present in Jesus and yet he only dares to visit him at night. Is he reluctant to give Jesus the recognition he deserves as a fellow rabbi, or is he afraid of declaring his own allegiance to Jesus? Either way, Jesus feels there may be some cognitive dissonance at work here. Like other rabbis who have come to Jesus seeking answers, Nicodemus is reluctant to acknowledge the truth of what he's hearing so he convinces himself that part of the jigsaw puzzle is still missing. 'How can these things be?' he asks.
'And how can you call yourself a teacher,' Jesus counters, 'And yet claim not to understand these things? I'm telling it how it is, but you're not listening.' How often that happens, doesn't it? Otherwise good people, including ourselves of course, sometimes blank out inconvenient truths or things which challenge our preconceptions.
A little later on Jesus talks about Moses, and only a few weeks ago we heard in the lectionary how Moses once said ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…, I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ In other words, good people who allow themselves to be deflected from what is true will not flourish in the long run.
However, unlike Moses, Jesus doesn't talk about condemnation; instead, he offers salvation. He has come so that good people might not perish but have everlasting life. And the key to turning things around is trust. If we trust in Jesus, and see in his uncompromising love the antidote to all the ways that good people so easily go wrong, then we too might be saved.
Paul says that Abraham didn't earn God's favour by doing the right thing all of the time. He wasn't good enough to become God's friend and the ancestor of a great faith. Instead, he simply put his trust in God.
The Law of Moses brings wrath or condemnation to those who try to be good by keeping it, not because it is a bad thing in itself but because being good enough to keep the Law is impossible. There’s no escaping human nature and we’re never so much in danger of falling as when we think we’re above reproach. We’ll always have mixed motives and Freudian psychology has demonstrated that some of our behaviour is dictated by our subconscious, so that we’re not even aware of what is really motivating us. That’s why, in the end, we’re dependent on the grace of God, revealed in Jesus who was lifted up to die for us in order to reveal God’s love for us, and who sends us the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that the Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why are good people tempted to do wrong?

Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, 1 Corinthians 3.1-4, Matthew 5.21-37
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong.
We tell ourselves that there are some people whose motives are totally wicked or self-regarding: criminals, liars, cheats, two-timers, fraudsters, and so on, but we are not that kind of person. We’re basically good people who just indulge in an occasional misdemeanour.
So, for example, there’s Noble Cause Corruption, a phrase first coined apparently in 1992 to explain why police officers, judges, politicians, managers, teachers, social workers and so on sometimes get sucked into justifying actions which are really totally wrong, but on the grounds that they are doing them for a very good reason.
A famous instance of noble cause corruption is the statement, by the late Lord Denning, then the Master of the Rolls and a very senior judge, that it would be better for innocent people to stay in gaol than for the rest of the world to start believing that the English legal system makes mistakes. Of course, we all want to believe that we have a legal system which is the envy of the world. But keeping innocent people in gaol just so that we can pretend we never make mistakes is only a good idea if, like Lord Denning, you happen to think that you and the people you love are never going to get arrested, taken before a court and put in prison for something that you haven’t done.
More ordinary examples of noble cause corruption would be ‘fitting someone  up’ for a crime - inventing evidence against them because you’re pretty sure they’re committing crimes but you can’t actually prove it; or sacking a worker for a bogus reason because you can’t get on with them or you think they’re bad for your organisation and you would be better off without them; or punishing a child at random to make the whole class behave better; or finding an excuse to take a child away from their family because you instinctively know that they’re in danger even though you can’t explain your reasons. The people who do these things feel they’re good people, and if they’re doing something a little bit wrong it is for a good cause. They feel that the end justifies the means.
Then, of course, there are good people who end up doing wrong things because of tunnel vision - like the bank managers who told their staff that they would only get all of their wages if they sold enough insurance policies and payment protection products. Inevitably this meant that staff felt pressured into recommending products hen they weren’t right for the customer. The whole policy was wrong, but the bank managers couldn’t see it. They felt they were doing a good job.
Another way that good people fall into error is when they change the name of something to make it sound less bad. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds regrettable but justifiable, whereas ‘killing innocent civilians’ sounds like something good people would never do.
Clock-watching is an ordinary, everyday reason why good people are tempted to do the wrong thing, and the obvious example is breaking the speed limit on the way to a hospital appointment or a job interview. However, as if that weren’t proof enough that clock-watching can turn good people bad, someone shut a group of theological students in a room, asked them to write an exam answer about the story of the Good Samaritan, then told them that it had to be handed in at another building. Half the class were allowed to leave in good time. On the way they encountered someone who apparently needed help and most of them stopped to see what they could do to assist, because they still had time to hand in their work to be marked. The other half of the class were deliberately held back on some pretext or other, so that they only just had enough time to meet the deadline if they hurried to the other building. Predictably, when they saw someone who needed help, most of them passed by on the other side. But they still felt okay about themselves, because they had something more important to do.
Good people also feel, of course, that teeny-tiny wrongs are not so very bad, whereas big wrongs ought to be punished. If they take home a few pens from work, or a memory stick, or the odd toilet roll even, that’s not really stealing, whereas taking a thousand pounds is a crime and should be punished.
And then there are people who think they’re so good that breaking the ordinary rules about bad behaviour can’t really take the shine off their goodness: people like Martin Luther King, who felt that he led such a hectic life doing good, and putting his life on the line, that a little bit of adultery and fornication was a perk of the job which he needed to help him unwind and stay focused.
MPs were prone to a similar temptation as well, weren’t they? Some of them convinced themselves that because they do a difficult job, for not very high reward, it was all right to employ their own children as researchers, even if the children didn’t actually do very much, or to claim for a duck house on expenses. And all ministers of religion, not just famous people like Martin Luther King, can easily fall into the same sort of trap. We convince ourselves that we’re basically good people, who do the Lord’s work, so if we also do a little bit of wrong on the side, so to speak, it doesn’t change our good opinion of ourselves.
Perhaps we persuade ourselves that we’ve got some ‘ethical credit’ - that we’ve stored up enough good deeds to cancel out the odd slip here and there. But anyone in a position of leadership, or authority is liable to set higher standards for other people than they apply to themselves. In their own case they can always see a good reason for bending the rules a bit, but when it comes to other people they want to see the rules applied.
Unfortunately, we’re all influenced by our environment as well. In a selfish environment, where everyone is looking out for themselves, we tend to become more selfish too. In a greedy environment, where everyone is trying to make as much money as they can, we tend to be infected by the same values even if we don’t really believe that greed is good. When people think they’re living in a jungle, they behave like they’re in the jungle.
And, of course, there’s the famous experiment - by someone called Stanley Milgram - where men in white coats asked a variety of people to inflict pain on a middle aged man as part of a scientific experiment, and they willingly did so even when the man begged them to stop. Milgram went on to argue from this that it helped to explain the behaviour of SS guards in concentration camps, but other people objected because they pointed out that the scientists in the experiment seemed like good people, whereas no one could imagine that the Nazis were good. Perhaps the SS guards just wanted to seem like team-players, which is another reason why good people sometimes do things they otherwise would feel were wrong.
But the biggest problem for good people is something which the experts call ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is a fancy way of saying that when we’re doing something that we know is wrong we start trying to convince ourselves that it isn’t so bad after all. We play down our bad behaviour and we rewrite the rules. And the longer it goes on, the more we try to explain the problem away.
Of course, when we’re found out we have to confront the fact that although we think we’re basically good we’re also capable of doing wrong. But perversely, sometimes, that’s when we begin to feel less bad about ourselves. ‘Okay,’ we might say, ‘So now everyone knows that I’m a bit more greedy, or sleazy or selfish than I seemed, but at least it’s out in the open so now I needn’t feel so bad about myself.’ I guess that’s how Chris Huhne justifies continuing to give us the benefit of his opinions in newspaper articles and so on. He got someone else to take his speeding points, but he’s admitted it now so he can put it behind him and get on with lecturing everyone else.
And we all do it, don’t we? if we’re honest! ‘We all tell ourselves that we’re better than we deserve to feel.
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…,’ says the prophet Moses, ‘I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ In other words, good people who allow themselves to be deflected from goodness will not flourish in the long run.
‘Happy are those who keep the Lord’s decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways,’ says the Psalmist. ‘O that my ways may be steadfast!’
St Paul points out to the Christians at Corinth that they’re not even half as good as they think they are. They’re not ‘spiritual people’ but ‘people of the flesh’. They’re not angels, they’re ‘merely human’.
Of course, there’s no escaping human nature. We’re never so much in danger of falling as when we think we’re above reproach. We’ll always have mixed motives and Freudian psychology has demonstrated that some of our behaviour is dictated by our sub-conscious, so that we’re not even aware of what is really motivating us. That’s why, in the end, we’re dependent on the grace of God, revealed in Jesus who died to reveal God’s love for us and who sends us the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what St Paul calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. But God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Jesus sets out in the Sermon on the Mount a charter for Christian perfection. He offers a commentary on the Ten Commandments which takes them and sharpens them so that even good people will be able to see that, in order to live up to God’s demands, we not only have to appear to be good, or even do good, we have to be good through and through, deep down to the core of our being, in a way that challenges even our most deeply hidden and unconscious motivations and distractions.
Of course, Jesus is exaggerating. He doesn’t really want his followers to chop off their hands or pluck out their eyes in an admission of our unconscious inadequacies and failings. But he wants us to recognise that this is what we ought to do if we’re to become radically pure and truly good. And, short of that, we therefore have to trust in his love and mercy and be merciful to others. ‘Judge not that you be not judged,’ is the sub-text of this passage.
Whether or not we should really swear oaths in court is also, I think, beside the point. What Jesus means is that good people are known, and recognised as such, by their integrity. Their ‘Yes’ really means ‘Yes’ and their ‘No’ really means ‘No’. They’re not like dodgy politicians, constantly ducking and diving around the straightforward meaning of words to avoid revealing what they actually mean.
Whether or not divorce is permitted for Christians is a matter of debate, even in the New Testament. Matthew says that you can divorce your wife, but only for ‘unchastity’. whatever that means, whereas Luke says you can never divorce her. And the divorce of husbands isn’t even mentioned. But probing into that sort of detail is to miss the point. The underlying meaning here, once again, is that good people must mean what they say. When they promise to love and obey there are no excuses for stopping.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A New Kind of Leader

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here the Prophet talks about a new kind of leadership. It's not exactly clear whether he has an individual leader in mind, or whether he envisages a reinvigorated nation of Israel offering that leadership to the peoples of the world. What is interesting, however, is the kind of leadership he talks about, which will be characterised by a gentle but persistent quest for justice. 

There  isn’t an absolute convergence of the two styles of leadership, but last year’s celebrations of the political leadership of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela surely come to mind when we are thinking about Isaiah’s new style of leadership. One political commentator remarked that both men were characterised by a huge ego, a sense that they were destined to lead their people; so much so in Nelson Mandela’s case that - to the astonishment of his fellow prisoners - he predicted quite early on during their imprisonment that one day he would become the first Black president of South Africa. And Martin Luther King, in particular, did ‘make his voice heard in the street’ unlike the new leader in the prophecy. But, said the commentator, at least their egos were harnessed to an idea. Yes, they wanted to be leaders - not people who are led, but they dedicated their ambition to the service of great ideas and particularly to the gentle but persistent quest for justice and harmony.

How different this is from the self-serving leadership which characterises many of our leading politicians. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicted shallow politicians and their advisers who were motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They didn't shape opinion; instead they slavishly followed it. 'The Thick Of It' was supposed to be a spoof of real political life but, to the horror of its creator - Armando Iannucchi - many politicians and political commentators wanted to know who had told him what was going on!

In contrast to these false leaders, the Prophet describes his vision of a new, gentle but just leader as a living embodiment of God's covenant, or promise, to the people of the Earth. The leader's mission is to show its people how things could be different and open their eyes and minds to new and challenging possibilities, thereby releasing the downtrodden from the dungeons of despair in which they might otherwise find themselves entombed. 

Again, like Mandela and Luther King, the new leader could be a single individual - and Jesus comes to mind. But it could also be an entire nation which is being called to create a template for real justice here and now. Or the new leader could be a community, like the Church, which is - after all - the Body of Christ on Earth, with its own mission to carry on his kind of leadership and be yeast in the leaven, or salt, or light for a needy world.

Part of the greatness of Mandela and Luther King was that they each managed to persuade a great many people that we all have a role to play in bring justice and harmony about. We are all destined to play a part in bringing about the Prophet’s vision of a new world. 

Acts 10:34-43

This sermon preached by Peter, one of the first leaders of the Christian community, describes how Jesus can be understood as the new kind of leader expected by the Prophet. Like the second Prophet Isaiah, Peter talks about a leader who is characterised by justice. However, he introduces two new elements into Isaiah's vision of godly leadership. 

First, Jesus is clearly a more spiritual leader. His kingdom is not of this world. He is more likely to 'appear' to people now when they share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion. He can't be followed around by journalists making "a day in the life of" documentaries and he doesn't go on national campaigns to get himself elected or even - like Martin Luther King - to overturn an unjust law. Jesus’ attitude is that he will leave politicians to deal with political issues and concentrate on transforming individuals and communities from within.

Second, he is a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death. Second Isaiah talks in some of his other poems about a suffering servant who may even have to die for God’s cause, but Peter takes this idea one stage further and says that it means that he can also be lord and judge of the dead, as well as of the living.

Jesus' message of peace was directed first to the nation of Israel but God shows no partiality and so it was always intended to be made available, through the inspiration of his Spirit and the preaching of his followers, to all people who believe in him and accept his offer of forgiveness.

Of course, leaders since who have wished to mould themselves in his image have had to embrace Jesus’ idea of sacrificial leadership and be ready to face rejection and even death if necessary in order to advance the cause of gentle justice. Nelson Mandela spent many years in prison and Martin Luther King was assassinated, but the same principle applies in its own small way to each of us. As the Covenant Prayer in the Methodist Worship Book reminds us, disciples of Jesus may have to endure things which we don’t like, we may be disregarded instead of being valued and we may end up with nothing tangible to show for our efforts. That is the nature of following him.

Matthew 3:13-17

In her Christmas message the Queen evoked the memory of her coronation in Westminster Abbey 60 years ago. Matthew describes how God's new leader was anointed not by holy oil in a splendid coronation service, but by the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the muddy waters of the River Jordan. Kings and Queens of England have often believed that they had been anointed by God's Spirit too, with a divine commission to rule over the English nation on God's behalf, but their actions have sometimes defied that belief. 

By contrast, Peter is able to explain in his sermon how the validity of Jesus' anointing was demonstrated throughout his life and death by the good that he did and by his ministry of healing and reconciliation. This proves that he really is the Beloved, chosen leader whose every word and action was pleasing to God.

Argument raged for a long time in the Church as to whether Jesus was part of what it means to be God before his baptism, and even before his birth and conception. The prologue to John's Gospel goes so far as to say that Jesus must have been part of God even before the creation of the Universe, whereas some early Christians were content to say that Jesus became God by adoption at his baptism. 

It might seem a rather abstruse and pointless argument, but actually a great deal hinges on it. The Christian understanding of God is that, in the person of Jesus, he closed the gulf which separated himself from humankind and the rest of the created order. But is that really possible if Jesus only became divine by adoption? 

In the end, most Christians agreed that true incarnation requires a complete identification of God with human existence and creation. And for that identification to be absolutely complete, God has to be inseparable from the person of Jesus even before Jesus existed as a distinct individual and, in fact, for all time. In other words, God must always have known what it means to live and perish as a human being and Jesus’ gentle quest for justice must have been part of God’s nature for all time.

(This is a revised version of an article which was first posted on 5 January 2008)